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U.S. Officials Are Buying More Vaccine Doses To Donate To Other Countries

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the United States answers a criticism from some parts of the world. It's a criticism that rich countries have taken a larger share of available COVID vaccines than poorer nations, which also need the vaccine. Even as a minority of Americans rejects the widely available medication, people in other countries are desperate for more. And today, President Biden will announce the United States is nearly doubling the amount of vaccine it is promising to donate to poorer countries. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is covering this story. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the president going to say exactly?

KEITH: The president is going to announce 500 million additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be purchased. He'll make that announcement at a virtual COVID-19 summit that he's hosting. The summit is aimed at getting other wealthy countries, NGOs and others, to commit to vaccinating the world. This big bunch of doses is on top of another 500 million doses he announced that the U.S. would be purchasing earlier this year, all aimed at low- and lower-middle-income countries. This will bring the total U.S. contribution to 1.1 billion doses. That's a lot more than any other country by a lot. President Biden gave a preview in his speech at the U.N. yesterday.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To fight this pandemic, we need a collective act of science and political will. We need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible and expand access to oxygen, tests, treatments, to save lives around the world.

KEITH: Biden will also, at this conference, get behind an ambitious goal of having 70% of the world's population vaccinated by this time next year.

INSKEEP: OK, you said 1.1 billion doses in total on the way, which is a lot, but there are 7 billion people in the world. How big a deal is this?

KEITH: Yeah, it is a significant contribution, but there are a lot of questions, including whether this announcement will be a catalyst for other rich countries to donate more doses. I asked Carolyn Reynolds at the Pandemic Action Network to do some of that math for us, and she said that, to meet that 70% goal, about 5 billion more doses will be needed for low- and middle-income countries. So this U.S. contribution would be about a fifth of that. The challenge now, she said, is timing and delivery. She and other global health advocates are pressing to get shots in arms much faster. The majority of the doses the U.S. is donating won't be delivered until next year - so put that another way, most of the vaccines going to poor countries will be delivered in the third year of this deadly pandemic.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, how else has the White House been responding to this criticism that the U.S. and other countries effectively hoarded doses for themselves?

KEITH: The White House insists that this isn't a choice, that they can vaccinate Americans and help vaccinate the world at the same time. And they've argued that some of the issues, like logistics and regulations, were out of their control. But one reason that poor countries don't have vaccines for their citizens is because wealthy countries were able to scoop up all the contracts and available doses early on, and now wealthy countries are talking about boosters and third doses for fully vaccinated people, which spurred some criticism from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who yesterday opened the U.N. General Assembly in New York with this.

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: A surplus in some countries; empty shelves in others. A majority of the wealthier world vaccinated; over 90% of Africans still waiting for their first dose. This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity. We passed the science test, but we are getting an F in ethics.

KEITH: An F in ethics. He will be speaking at the summit today, along with some other people who've been critical of the pandemic response thus far.

INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds, what else is happening at the summit?

KEITH: This is really all about accountability. Not just getting countries and NGOs to make pledges - there have been plenty of pledges along the way - but actually following through and meeting those goals, not having those goals get missed or tossed out again.

INSKEEP: Tam, thanks for the news.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.