Who benefits? US debates fairest way to share spare vaccine

WASHINGTON, DC, United States (AP) — In April, the Joe Biden Administration announced plans to share millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses with the world by the end of June. Five weeks later, nations around the globe are still waiting — with growing impatience — to learn where the vaccines will go and how they will be distributed.

To President Biden, the doses represent a modern-day “arsenal of democracy”, serving as the ultimate carrot for America’s partners abroad, but also as a necessary tool for global health, capable of saving millions of lives and returning a semblance of normalcy to friends and foes alike.

The central question for Biden: What share of doses should be provided to those who need it most, and how many should be reserved for US partners?

The answer, so far at least, appears to be that the Administration will provide the bulk of the doses to COVAX, the UN-backed global vaccine sharing programme meant to meet the needs of lower income countries. While the percentage is not yet finalised, it would mark a substantial — and immediate — boost to the lagging COVAX effort, which to date has shared just 76 million doses with needy countries.

The Biden Administration is considering reserving about a fourth of the doses for the US to dispense directly to individual nations of its choice.

The growing US stockpile of COVID-19 vaccines is seen not only as a testament to American ingenuity, but also its global privilege.

More than 50 per cent of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and more than 135 million are fully vaccinated, helping bring the rate of cases and deaths in the US to the lowest level since the earliest days of the pandemic.

Scores of countries have requested doses from the United States, but to date only Mexico and Canada have received a combined 4.5 million doses. The US also has announced plans to share enough shots with South Korea to vaccinate its 550,000 troops who serve alongside American service members on the peninsula.

The broader US sharing plan is still being finalised, a White House official said, having been the subject of policy debate inside the White House and across the federal government, and also involving COVAX and other outside stakeholders like drug manufacturers and logistics experts.

“Our nation’s going to be the arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world,” Biden said on May 17, when he announced the US pledge to share more doses. He added that, compared to other countries like Russia and China that have sought to leverage their domestically produced doses, “we will not use our vaccines to secure favours from other countries”.

Still, the partnership with the South Korean military points to the ability of the US to use its vaccine stockpile to benefit some of its better-off allies. It was not clear whether South Korea would pay for its doses from the US. Most of the other doses were expected to be donated.

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