The Biden administration is buying 500 million doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine to donate to the world, as the United States dramatically increases its efforts to help vaccinate the global population, according to three people familiar with the plans.
The first 200 million doses will be distributed this year, with the subsequent 300 million shared in the first half of next year. The doses will be distributed by Covax, the World Health Organization-backed initiative to share doses around the globe, and they will be targeted at low- and middle-income countries. Pfizer is selling the doses to the United States at a “not-for-profit” price, according to the people familiar with the deal.
President Biden is slated to announce the plan at the Group of Seven meeting in Britain this week amid growing calls for the United States and other rich countries to play a more substantial role in boosting the global supply of coronavirus vaccine. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla is expected to join Biden in making the announcement.
The White House and Pfizer declined to comment.
The Biden administration previously announced it would share at least 80 million vaccine doses with the world by the end of June. Last week, the White House detailed plans for how it would allocate 25 million doses, with about 19 million of them being shared with Covax. Roughly 6 million shots would be shared directly with countries experiencing severe coronavirus outbreaks, including India.
The question of how to close the vaccine gap and end the pandemic is expected to be front and center at the G-7 summit. In the lead-up to the meeting of wealthy democracies, Biden’s vaccine-sharing strategy has been under intense scrutiny.
Congressional Democrats and some health advocates have been calling for the administration to do more. At the same time, Biden's surprise decision to support a proposal to waive patent protections for coronavirus vaccines has faced strong pushback from the European Union.
Questions about how to proceed have intensified in recent weeks as cases in the United States have receded and infections have surged in some developing countries without adequate vaccine supply, leading to fresh charges of “vaccine apartheid.”
The gap between vaccines haves and have-nots is vast. More than half the populations in the United States and Britain have had at least one dose, compared with fewer than 2 percent of people in Africa.
So far, the global effort to close that gap has been piecemeal. Some wealthy nations have announced plans to donate surplus doses and have expressed support for the idea of boosting global supply, but specifics on when and how to proceed are scarce.
Covax aims to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of the year, with an eye toward vaccinating 20 percent of the populations of countries in need, but it may not meet that relatively modest target. The initiative has been plagued by funding shortfalls and a severe supply crunch exacerbated by the crisis in India, leading to potentially deadly delays. To date, Covax has delivered 81 million doses to 129 countries.
After a successful vaccination effort in the United States, Biden tapped Jeff Zients, the COVID-19 coordinator, to oversee the country’s global vaccination strategy. Zients has been working on the deal for a month, officials said, and the White House wanted the announcement to be a signature part of Biden’s trip to the G7 given the urgency of boosting global vaccine supply.
"It is meaningful," said Thomas J. Bollyky, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its Global Health Program, "but not sufficient on its own."
To assess the scale, he said, consider that 500 million doses is six times the roughly 80 million doses the World Health Organization-linked Covax Facility has distributed so far. At the same time, it is just 1/4 of the 2 billion doses the initiative aimed to distribute this year, with an eye to vaccinating just 20 percent of the population of participating countries.
“These Pfizer doses will go to many countries,” Bollyky said. “The big question is, in what order, and in what amount? That will have significant bearing on what the public health impact of the commitment will be.”
With the United States’ announcement, international health organizations are calling on other wealthy countries to increase their international commitments as well, warning about the need to curtail the virus around the world to prevent more dangerous variants from spreading.
“We won’t end this global pandemic anywhere unless we beat it everywhere,” Tom Hart, the acting CEO of The One Campaign, an organization focused on fighting global poverty and preventable disease, said in a statement. “Donating doses to COVAX will save lives, reduce the spread of variants, and help reopen the global economy.
“We urge other G7 countries to follow the US’ example and donate more doses to COVAX. If there was ever a time for global ambition and action to end the pandemic, it’s now.”