The White House Says It Has Started Shipping Surplus COVID-19 Vaccines Abroad

Jun 3, 2021
Originally published on June 4, 2021 5:29 am

Updated June 3, 2021 at 3:17 PM ET

The United States will send its first shipments of surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses abroad on Thursday, spelling out for the first time how it will share its wealth of vaccines with parts of the world struggling to get shots in arms.

The Biden administration has previously said it would share 80 million doses by the end of June. "We know that won't be sufficient," said Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 response. But he said it's an important step toward boosting global production and trying to end the global pandemic.

"We expect a regular cadence of shipments around the world across the next several weeks. And in the weeks ahead, working with the world's democracies we will coordinate a multilateral effort, including the G-7, to combat and end the pandemic," Zients said.

The U.S. has contracts for hundreds of millions more vaccine doses than it could possibly use — and this is a major move by the Biden administration to attempt to exert global leadership after months of pressure from global health organizations.

Zients said 75% of the first 25 million doses will be allotted through COVAX, an international distribution system aimed at helping vaccinate people in the world's poorest countries.

The administration also removed contract ratings under the Defense Production Act that prioritized U.S. contracts for suppliers to AstraZeneca, Novavax and Sanofi — three vaccines not currently authorized for use in the United States.

"While the manufacturers will continue to make these three vaccines, this action will allow U.S.-based companies that supply these vaccine manufacturers to make their own decisions on which orders to fulfill first," Zients said.

The administration says no strings attached

The first priority for doses shared through COVAX will be Latin America and the Caribbean, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa, the White House said.

The remaining doses will go to countries that have made their case to the White House, including nations such as India that have seen surges in cases; places such as Gaza, which is grappling to rebuild from recent fighting; and neighboring countries such as Canada and Mexico, the White House said.

"This won't be enough to end or reduce the life span of the pandemic. And that's why we're working with allies and partners to expand the production of vaccines and raw materials, including here at home," said Jake Sullivan, President Biden's national security adviser, on a call with reporters.

Sullivan emphasized there would be no strings attached to the doses — a veiled criticism of China and Russia, which have rapidly shared doses around the world. "We're not seeking to extract concessions. We're not extorting. We're not imposing conditions the way that other countries who are providing doses are doing."

In accordance with the administration's framework, the White House announced approximate allocations for the first 25 million doses that will ship:

  • 6 million to South and Central America;
  • 7 million to Asia;
  • 5 million to Africa; and
  • 6 million to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Ukraine, Kosovo, Haiti, Georgia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen as well as U.N. front-line workers

Leaders are facing calls to do more

Both Biden and Vice President Harris leave next week on their first official foreign trips and are expected to discuss the U.S. plans for vaccine distribution. Harris is set to travel to Guatemala and Mexico City starting on Sunday, and Biden leaves Wednesday for the U.K., Brussels and Geneva.

Harris made a series of calls about the shipments on Thursday, including to leaders in Mexico, Guatemala and India. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tweeted about his conversation with Harris, announcing that a shipment of 1 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines would be heading for Mexico. The White House did not immediately confirm those details.

Carolyn Reynolds of the Pandemic Action Network called the announcement a good start but said the White House and other world leaders needed to pick up the pace.

"It is time to have a global road map to vaccinate the world. That's what we hope will come out of the G-7 summit next week," Reynolds told NPR. "As long as this pandemic is raging anywhere around the world, Americans aren't safe, none of us are safe."

Tom Hart, acting CEO of the ONE Campaign, said he was disappointed that the Biden administration has not moved faster to ship 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which U.S. regulators have not yet authorized for emergency use.

"Less than 1 percent of COVID-19 vaccine doses globally have been administered to people in low-income countries," Hart said in a statement. "This is a once in a generation crisis, and as we approach the G7 next week, the world is looking to the US for global leadership and more ambition is needed."

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The U.S. has contracts for hundreds of millions more COVID vaccine doses than it could possibly use. Today the White House announced a long-awaited plan for sharing that wealth with the rest of the world. The first shipment went out today of what will be 25 million doses shared, and there are promises of a total of 80 million by the end of the month. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us with more.

Hi, Tam.


SHAPIRO: Where are these doses going?

KEITH: So the bulk of them, 19 million, will go to COVAX. That's an international effort to vaccinate people in the world's poorest countries in an equitable way. And they'll go to Latin America, Asia and Africa. And then the other 25% will be shipped directly by the U.S. to areas of particular need or to friends and neighbors. So, for instance, today there's a plane with a million vaccine doses headed to South Korea to vaccinate the military there because they work closely with U.S. troops. The president of Mexico tweeted that he got a call from Vice President Harris saying the U.S. would be sending vaccines to Mexico more. There had already been some sent to Mexico. Surplus vaccines will go to Canada, India, Ukraine, the West Bank and Gaza, among others.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about 25 million doses, but given the scope of the pandemic, is that enough?

KEITH: In a word, no. The U.S. has been under intense pressure to share its wealth of vaccines. I talked to advocates today. They're happy that the U.S. is emphasizing a global effort and not just sharing those doses through bilateral deals, but Carolyn Reynolds of the Pandemic Action Network told me billions of doses are needed, not millions.

CAROLYN REYNOLDS: It is time to have a global road map to vaccinate the world. That's what we hope will come out of the G-7 summit next week. So this announcement today from the White House is an important step forward, but we've got a lot more to do, and we've got to step up the pace, and we've got to do it quickly. As long as this pandemic is raging anywhere around the world, Americans are not safe. None of us are safe.

KEITH: She's part of a coalition sending a letter to President Biden tomorrow calling on the G-7 - so the world's wealthiest nations - to donate at least a billion doses by the end of August. And they're calling on the U.S. alone to contribute at least 350 million. So that is exponentially more than the White House announced today.

SHAPIRO: China and Russia have been distributing vaccines to other countries for months already. Is this U.S. effort different?

KEITH: In many cases, countries had to pay for those vaccines, and they also came with strings attached. National security adviser Jake Sullivan was adamant that the U.S. is taking a different approach.


JAKE SULLIVAN: We're not seeking to extract concessions. We're not extorting. We're not imposing conditions the way that other countries who are providing doses are doing. These are doses that are being given, donated free and clear to these countries for the sole purpose of improving the public health situation and helping end the pandemic.

KEITH: And there's a real emphasis from the administration on the idea that the world's democracies are going to help guide the world out of this pandemic, but the administration has taken a lot of criticism for vaccinating the U.S. first. Now, Sullivan says, that the U.S. will try to galvanize the world's leading economies to get behind this push and draw a contrast with the more transactional approach taken by China and Russia.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Thanks a lot.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.