Vaccine Equity, Boosters Dominate Lead to Biden COVID-19 Summit, as UN Head Warns Against US-China Rivalry
Members of Physicians for Human Rights join other NGOs to call for vaccine equity.

Vaccine equity and booster debates are shadowing the lead-up to US President Joe Biden’s planned COVID-19 Summit on Wednesday, with the US reportedly poised to donate another half a billion Pfizer vaccines to the world. 

Israeli scientists reported that people over age 60 who received a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine were five times less likely to become severely ill if they had their first shots at least five months earlier. The findings were published last Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The findings were the largest yet on the outcomes of Israel’s booster campaign, which has so far seen 30% of its population triple vaccinated as the country battles one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world. 

The Israeli findings were regarded as a critical factor in the recommendation by the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) independent advisory panel of experts to approve a third Pfizer booster shot for people 65 years and over or at severe risk of COVID-19 and who were vaccinated at least six months or earlier. 

Last Friday, the FDA expert panel voted by 16 to 2 against booster shots for those over the age of 16, and the FDA itself is expected to announce its decision on boosters this week.

A recent review in The Lancet authored by key scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions argued that there was insufficient evidence to justify booster campaigns in developed countries which had already vaccinated at-risk groups with two courses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. 

However, the review made its case on the serious equity issues around the relative global health benefits of directing third shots to already vaccinated group, as compared to first and second jabs to never-vaccinated people. 

It also relied heavily on a series of smaller, observational trials and laboratory analyses, and did not fully incorporate the Israeli results, which had only just been published in a pre-print format.  

Protests against ‘vaccine apartheid’ at UN

Regardless of the medical arguments for boosters, a rising chorus of politicians and global health advocates have charged that gross inequities around vaccine distribution are creating a “perfect storm” for new variants to emerge among entirely unvaccinated groups – threatening rich and poor countries alike. 


On Monday, protestors from a range of health organisations, including HealthGAP and Physicians for Human Rights, grouped outside of the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York to protest against “vaccine apartheid”.


Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern that the global COVID-19 response might be hampered by the poor relationship between the US and China in a Sunday evening interview with CNN

Guterres said there were “two divides” related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first relates to the “north-south divide where the North took care of its own population and forgot largely about the south”, which was driving mistrust from the south.

“Then there is the geostrategic divide now centred in the relationship between the US and China,” said Guterres, who called on the two superpowers to negotiate on issues of potential commonality, namely “trade and technology”, to make “co-operation on vaccines possible”.

China has emerged as the world’s greatest producer of vaccines.

Jeffrey Sachs, chair of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission, appealed for similar global co-operation in an article for Project Syndicate on Monday.

“Governments of countries where vaccines are being produced – the United States, European Union members, the United Kingdom, India, Russia, and China – need to cooperate under UN leadership to ensure that a sufficient supply of vaccine doses reaches the poorest countries,” said Sachs.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres

Hopes have been expressed that a proposed US COVID-19 Summit could encourage  sweeping commitments from other world leaders to change course. 

The White House publicly announced its plans for a virtual COVID-19 summit on Friday where it hopes to secure a firm global commitment to vaccinate 70% of the world’s population by September 2022. 

“This meeting is about expanding and enhancing our shared efforts to defeat COVID-19, building out from previous gatherings of world leaders and ministers in fora like the G7, G20, and Act Accelerator to rally civil society, NGOs, philanthropists, and industry along with world leaders and align on a common vision for defeating COVID-19 together,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

US President Joe Biden plans to use Wednesday’s summit to call on global leaders to make new commitments to fight the coronavirus pandemic, including fully vaccinating 70 percent of the world’s population by next September and securing billions of additional doses for the developing world, among other targets, according to details obtained by the Washington Post.

Vaccine equity has morphed from being a primarily global health issue, to one with domestic political impacts in the US. Last Friday, Congressional Democrats sent a letter to Biden, urging him to change the current paradigm where rich countries enjoy unlimited access to vaccines while poor countries can hardly get first doses. 

“So far, 5.82 billion doses have been administered globally, but less than 2% of the population living in low-income countries received even one dose,” Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and six colleagues wrote to Biden, citing WHO data on vaccine inequity.  “Clearly, there is an inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses, and it is getting worse,” the letter said, calling for “additional U.S. leadership”.

More Biden donations 

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration is buying hundreds of millions more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, with an announcement slated for early next week, during the UNGA.  But the terms are not finalized, people with knowledge of the deal, told the Post. 

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, declined to comment on the deal but said vaccine access “will be a big topic of conversation” at the UN General Assembly.

The purchase would bring the US donation of Pfizer vaccines to over one billion – following announcement of an 80 million dose emergency donation in May, followed by a 500 million dose donation in June. mark the second major effort by the United States to distribute vaccine to the world. 

The Biden administration has been adamant that the United States has enough vaccine supply for booster shots and global donations.

“We feel it’s a false choice to suggest it’s either give to the world or not,” Psaki said last Thursday. “We are continuing to increase the supply of vaccines we’re giving to the world. We will continue to have more announcements on that because we want to be the arsenal of vaccines to the world, and we are giving more than every other country in the world combined.

Image Credits: CNN.

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