Biden’s Global COVID-19 Vaccination Push Endangered by Worldwide Syringe Shortage – Vanity Fair

On the morning of August 26, roughly two dozen global-health advocates logged on to a Zoom call with members of the White House COVID-19 task force to sort through a number of issues that could impede the rollout of vaccines donated to the developing world.

It was a who’s who of charitable organizations that included representatives from UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, the Pan American Health Organization, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI), and the World Health Organization. Also present were key participants from across the U.S. government, including representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The meeting came roughly three weeks after the Biden administration announced it was in the process of shipping 110 million donated doses of COVID vaccines to more than 60 countries. That amount, which surpassed the contributions of all other countries combined, seemed to underscore Joe Biden’s pledge that the U.S. would serve as an “arsenal of vaccines for the world.” The doses, Biden and his deputies would repeatedly emphasize, came free of cost, with no strings attached and no quid pro quos.

But there was something else that the vaccines came without: syringes. A substantial portion of the doses were manufactured by Pfizer, whose vaccine has to be injected with a specialized syringe. A worldwide shortage of such syringes has put them out of reach of most other countries, especially those in the developing world.

The advocates in attendance warned the White House that, without the syringes, doses would sit idle in countries that received them. Then they offered an array of possible solutions, one being that the federal government could donate syringes from its own supply as a stopgap measure. Those present fully expected the White House to remedy the situation somehow, as several meeting participants recalled. Instead, White House representatives surprised the group by declining to pursue any of the offered solutions. “The general framing was, ‘It’s just not on the table,’” a participant recalled.

According to a second participant, the White House’s motivation for withholding the syringes wasn’t difficult to discern. “It was obvious from the coded language, they needed to save [them] for U.S. need,” this person told Vanity Fair.

Defending the decision, a White House official told those gathered that the U.S. government had always planned to donate the doses without syringes. One participant recalled thinking, “Just because it’s planned, it’s planned stupidity.” That person added, “a number of people came away from that meeting very upset.”

UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, and the Pan American Health Organization declined to make officials available for interviews. In a statement, UNICEF said that it is “working hard to align deliveries of vaccine with deliveries of necessary syringes.” Expressing gratitude for the U.S. government’s “ongoing support,” the statement described the effort to acquire syringes as a “welcome challenge to have as it means we have secured desperately needed doses that will save lives.”

The White House referred questions to USAID, where an official said on background that the donation effort was a “rapidly evolving emergency response operation.” Characterizing the August 26 meeting as the U.S. government and its operational partners “collectively trying to problem solve,” the official said that supply constraints would require “a lot of real-time adjustments,” but that the advocates’ projected shortfalls were worst-case scenarios. “We’re talking with syringe manufacturers and identifying options to scale up manufacturing for Pfizer vaccinations. We are guardedly hopeful that we can keep pace together.”

On September 22, President Biden convened a global COVID-19 summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, in part to underscore the urgency of vaccinating at least 70% of the world by September 2022. “We’re not going to solve this crisis with half measures or middle-of-the-road ambitions,” he said in his opening remarks. “We need to go big.”

That day, the administration announced it would double its initial pledge, made in June, to purchase 500 million Pfizer doses for donation. That brought the total number of Pfizer vaccines pledged by the United States to roughly 1 billion doses. To advocates on the sidelines, this welcome news came with a major catch: It meant that the yawning shortfall of syringes would now become cavernous.

Last week, key advocates presented members of the White House COVID-19 task force with updated projections of likely syringe shortages in the developing world. The analysis, which Vanity Fair obtained, warned of a shortfall of 226 million of the syringes needed to administer Pfizer doses by February 2022, and a shortage of 1.8 billion of those needed for all COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022.

Public health experts agree that our best path out of the pandemic lies in vaccinating the world as swiftly as possible. So long as poorer regions of the world remain largely unvaccinated, the virus will continue to mutate as it spreads, creating deadly and potentially more infectious strains.

President Biden has asserted that, to tackle this crisis, the U.S. will resume its long-standing role as the world’s public health leader. But critics argue that his administration’s global-vaccination efforts—while a vast improvement over Donald Trump’s disastrous isolationism—are more rhetoric than reality, and fall short on a number of fronts.

They say the U.S. began its rollout of donated vaccines too late. They warn that the number of pledged doses, while admirable, is still insufficient. And they argue that, for all the administration’s talk about a “wartime effort” to vaccinate the world, it still hasn’t formulated a coherent strategy to do so. Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, a member of the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus, told Vanity Fair that Biden’s declaration at the summit was “really good” but added, it “doesn’t acknowledge there is a need for a plan, and doesn’t support it because there is no plan.”

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