WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden urged countries to spend more to help combat COVID-19 in a virtual summit that resulted in billions of dollars in pledges on Thursday, even as the president has been unable to convince lawmakers in his own country to free up additional funds for the pandemic fight.
The second global COVID summit — which the US co-hosted alongside Germany, Senegal, Indonesia and Belize — aimed to reignite the global response to fast-spreading virus sub-variants that are expected to lead to a spike in cases and deaths worldwide.
Although President Biden aggressively coaxed other wealthy nations to ramp up their own financial contributions to combat the virus, America showed up to the table nearly empty-handed — its own billions of dollars in both domestic and global pandemic aid stuck in a drawn-out Congressional logjam.
“We must all do more. We have to double down on our efforts to get shots in arms,” Biden urged world leaders at the summit. “We have to invest now. I encourage every leader to ask yourself, ‘What more can I do? How can we work more closely together to help more people? How can we save more lives?’”
The White House pledged $200 million for a new fund at the World Bank, which will help nations respond to pandemic threats in the future, and $20 million to poorer countries to help deliver tests and treatments. The administration also announced it would be licensing the stabilized spike protein technology that is a key part of vaccines, to help lower income countries access that technology.
It was a small sum for the world’s richest nation, however. Other countries and charity groups pledged over $3 billion at the summit — still a far cry from the $15 billion needed to fully fund global vaccination efforts, according to the World Health Organization’s ACT-Accelerator.
“It is both shameful and imprudent that the United States is coming to this summit with no additional funds committed to support the global COVID-19 vaccine roll out,” wrote Michele Heisler, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights, in a statement released Tuesday.
An administration official who declined to speak on the record defended the White House on a call with reporters this week, saying the US claims credit for the “leadership” that resulted in the billions of dollars of pledges from convening the summit. The US has donated hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to other nations, but experts say more funds are needed to successfully distribute those vaccines.
Biden ordered flags flown at half mast on Thursday as the nation passed the grim milestone of 1 million COVID-19 deaths.
The additional cash comes at a perilous time for the global fight against the virus. Booster rates in low and middle income countries remain “negligible” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar of Duke’s Global Health Institute. And in recent months, the pace of Western financing to global vaccination efforts has slowed precipitously, as has the rate of testing, the Boston Globe reported last month. According to a top White House official, America could face an additional 100 million infections in the fall and winter, affecting roughly a third of the population, propelled by Omicron sub-variants.
“We are following a self-defeating pathway,” Udayakumar said. “This global pandemic will not resolve itself without stronger American leadership. If we find ourselves with a surge in the fall and not enough resources, that will be a preventable disaster of our own making.”
American COVID aid has been stalled in the Senate for months. Democrats’ efforts to unleash the billions to pay for vaccines, testing, and life-saving therapies have been thwarted repeatedly by Republicans.
In March, the White House asked Congress to approve a $22.5 billion package — but the aid was quickly hacked down in negotiations to around half that amount, at $10 billion. And that revised package nixed a planned $5 billion in international COVID aid entirely. Since then, Congress has made little progress on either funding package, after a controversial immigration dispute kept the domestic aid tied up, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine rerouted the focus of lawmakers. Most recently, the House was unsuccessful in tacking on the $10 billion aid program to a $40 billion aid bill it passed yesterday to bankroll the war effort in Ukraine. There are signs the package may move to a vote in the future, after some Senate Democrats agreed to tie the aid to a vote on immigration enforcement.
Nevertheless, Biden portrayed the US as a leader on global health and reiterated his commitment to battling COVID around the world.
“I continue to call on Congress here at home to take the urgent action to provide emergency COVID-19 funding that is vital to protect Americans,” he said. “The request also includes $5 billion to keep up our global partnership in the fight against COVID-19 and sustain our efforts to get shots in people’s arms all around the world, expand access to treatment, and save lives everywhere.”
As it stands, the US’s international COVID funds are nearly gone. A spokesperson for the US Department of International Aid told the Globe in a statement that practically all of America’s global COVID relief funds have been exhausted, derailing US efforts to expand vaccination campaigns for more than 100 million people in 20 new countries.
Udayakumar said the numbers show increasing rates of infection in the Americas and Africa, and said another surge of infections beginning in the summer and into the fall is likely. Those figures are raising the urgency for more funds, particularly as America quickly runs out of cash to pay for more vaccines, treatments, and testing.
“The longer we allow infections to continue at high rates, the higher risk we take of new variants emerging with greater immune transmissibility and immune evasion,” he said. “We need tens of billions of dollars and a global plan of action.”
He added: “We’re all tired: None of us want to be dealing with a pandemic, but we can’t wish it away.”
Pranav Baskar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.