Africa’s First Covid-19 Vaccine Factory Hasn’t Received a Single Order

WASHINGTON — President Biden and other leaders issued an urgent call on Thursday for the world to step up its fight against Covid-19, and countries including Germany, Canada and Japan pledged large sums to finance tests, therapeutics and vaccines — a commitment Mr. Biden could not make because Congress has refused to authorize new pandemic aid.

As the United States lost another virtual harrowing milestone — one million American lives to fear of the deadly variant loomed large virus — the president’s second global Covid-19 summit, a gathering co-hosted by Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal. But some countries were notably absent. China, in the thick of its own Covid crisis, did not attend. Russia, waging war against Ukraine, was not invited.

Senior Biden administration officials said the summit produced more than $3 billion in commitments toward the global response and toward efforts to prevent future pandemics. That is far short of the $15 billion that the World Health Organization says is needed. But the summit did lay the groundwork for a new global preparedness fund.

The gathering on Thursday unfolded in a very different climate compared with that of the first Covid summit in September. The war in Ukraine is sapping energy and money from donor nations. The global vaccination campaign has stalled. Testing has plummeted around the globe. Covid antiviral pills, available in the United States, are scarce in many low- and middle-income nations. Many attendees said Covid fatigue had become as big a danger as Covid itself.

“There’s still so much left to do; this pandemic is not over,” Mr. Biden said in his opening remarks from him, adding, “We have to prevent complacency.”

But the president’s tone was tepid compared with that of some of the other participants, who included heads of state, global health officials and philanthropic leaders. Several, including Dr. Joy St. John, the executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, said climate change was speeding up the cycle of pandemics, making the next outbreak inevitable.

“The next virus may kill even more people and cause even greater economic disruption,” she warned.

Bill Gates, the software entrepreneur and philanthropist whose foundation has donated tens of millions of dollars to pandemic relief efforts — and who tested positive for the coronavirus this week — railed against global health inequities.

“We need to make more lifesaving tools and allocate them based on need rather than wealth,” Mr. Gates declared, adding, “We don’t have time to waste.”

There were some proverbial elephants in the room: China’s ongoing Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine were not discussed. But J. Stephen Morrison, an expert in global health at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the commitments by the Group of 7 nations reflected the strengthening of bonds between countries allied against Russia in the Ukraine war.

Those pledges, he said, will pave the way for the World Bank to create a new global pandemic preparedness fund. The fund will be similar to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which was created two decades ago.

“It was the G7 that was the core of the HIV response, and in some ways this is getting that same garage band back together,” Mr. Morrison said. Referring to the lack of congressional funding, he said, “Overall, not a bad outcome given the circumstances.”

Before the summit began, Mr. Biden ordered flags lowered to half-staff at the White House and all public buildings and military installations until Monday in commemoration of the nation’s death toll.

As of Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported more than 995,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States; the New York Times database put the figure at more than 997,000. But with heads of state, leaders of philanthropies and pharmaceutical executives attending the virtual gathering, Mr. Biden was ready to mark the coming moment.

Globally, the World Health Organization has said that nearly 15 million more people died during the first two years of the pandemic than would have been expected during normal times. That estimate far exceeds the official Covid death toll reported by countries.

Despite the gloomy predictions, summit participants did report some progress. Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, told attendees that in Ghana, the percentage of eligible people fully vaccinated had doubled between December and April and now stood at 25.4 percent. Uganda has also seen a surge in vaccination.

“Now is not the time to back down; it is the time to push ahead,” she said, “even if this fight may drag on longer than any of us want.”

The White House instructed participants to come to Thursday’s summit with significant commitments — either financial or nonmonetary. One by one, over the course of four virtual sessions, philanthropies and drugmakers stepped up.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany pledged $1.5 billion, saying his country “wants to lead by example.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said his country would donate $732 million. South Korea offered $300 million.

The Clinton Health Access Initiative said it had negotiated agreements with drug manufacturers to make generic versions of Pfizer’s Covid antiviral, Paxlovid, available for less than $25 per course. Merck, whose Covid antiviral, molnupiravir, has already been distributed in generic form in 15 countries, said it would make two million courses of the drug available at a “best access price” to low- and middle-income nations.

The United States, which has already committed $19 billion to the global response, did not come entirely empty-handed. The Biden administration put forth a relatively small amount of money at the meeting: $200 million for the World Bank fund to prepare for future pandemics and $20 million for pilot projects to bring coronavirus tests and treatments to poor nations.

But that is much less than Mr. Biden hoped for. The president has asked Congress for $22.5 billion — including $5 billion to fight the pandemic globally — in coronavirus emergency aid, but the proposal is stuck on Capitol Hill, even as Congress hurries to approve $40 billion in emergency aid for Ukraine.

Lawmakers are still struggling to figure out how to advance a pared-down $10 billion coronavirus package. A group of Nobel laureates and former heads of state, including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, called this week for Congress to fulfill Mr. Biden’s request.

“We’ve got to puncture the complacency about this, to make sure that people realize that if we don’t act, another variant is a possibility — and we don’t know how lethal it could be,” Mr. Brown, who is now the World Health Organization’s ambassador for global health financing, said in an interview this week.

The United States also made a significant nonmonetary commitment: The National Institutes of Health has agreed to license its “stabilized spike protein technology” — a crucial component of Covid vaccines and treatments — to companies through the Medicines Patent Pool, a global nonprofit backed by the WHO that works to bring medicines to low- and middle-income nations at low cost.

The move is significant because it may lay the groundwork for other countries and companies to share their technologies, said Peter Maybarduk, who directs the global access to medicines program for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, and serves on the patent pool’s board.

credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

While the United States has donated hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to poor nations, it has been less aggressive about sharing technology.

“One of the terrible injustices and major impediments in this pandemic has been the exclusive control of critical medical technology,” Mr. Maybarduk said. By working with the Medicines Patent Pool, he said, the Biden administration would be “not only sharing doses, but sharing knowledge, on the view that sharing doses is charity and sharing knowledge is justice.”

correction:

May 12, 2022

An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the name of a town where a booster shot was administered in Sri Lanka. It was Kalawana, not Kalwana.

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