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Internal Biden administration debate over vaccine sharing grows more intense

The internal debate in the Biden administration over sharing excess US vaccines doses with other countries has grown more intense in recent weeks as the Covid-19 crisis worsens globally and the situation in the US improves, according to sources familiar with the tensions.

There has been a particularly aggressive push from some officials within the administration and within the State Department to share quickly, two sources told CNN. Those officials have stressed that the White House urgently needs to take steps to share vaccines sooner rather than later while some White House health officials have countered that should not happen until the vaccine situation domestically is completely taken care of.

This situation triggered some frustrated officials to encourage business and interest groups outside of government to publicly push the administration to share vaccines in the hope that external pressure will speed up the process, two sources familiar with those discussions told CNN.

The White House coronavirus response coordinator’s team continues to take the lead on decision making.

This week the Biden administration committed to sharing up to 60 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses, which will not be needed in the US, with other countries in the next two months. The sources arguing to share doses said the announcement is a signal that the pressure is having an impact. Though they added that the dire situation in India means many within the administration are arguing the doses need to be shared more rapidly.

Administration officials have always said that the US will share vaccines globally when the country is in a position to do, and took issue with any suggestion that outside pressure could have an impact on decision making.

“The idea that we needed any sort of push to do more by outside groups is false and ignores what we have consistently said. We have from day one been focused on the pandemic, both at home and abroad, and the AstraZeneca decision was based not on responding to outside pressure but on an assessment that we could donate these doses while maintaining adequate supply for the American people,” said a senior State Department official.

Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on Monday and they discussed a “range of emergency assistance” the US is providing India, but the readout from the White House made no specific mention of vaccines.

Announcement coming soon

Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that the administration will make an announcement about how it will share excess vaccines in the coming days and made it clear that no final decision has been made about which countries will get the doses first.

“For the vaccines that we have directly on hand or will shortly, we’re going to decide whether to do some or all of that through COVAX or how much of that will be done directly, country-to-country. All of that is in the works, and we’ll have a plan in place in the coming days,” Blinken said on CNN on Tuesday.

That announcement is likely to focus on India specifically, and then there will be additional decisions made over the coming weeks on the administration’s broader approach to sharing as they monitor flare ups in Southeast Asia or in other places around the world.

Blinken also said that the US has a national security interest in getting as many people vaccinated globally as possible.

“As long as that virus is replicating somewhere, it’s going to be mutating; and if it’s mutating, it could come back to bite us,” Blinken said. “We have a strong national security interest in making sure that the world is vaccinated, and we are going to be playing our part.”

The State Department will take a lead role in assessing the incoming requests for vaccines from other countries, administration officials said. The State Department’s global Covid-19 coordinator, Gayle Smith, will take the lead in this process.

“As does the broader administration, the State Department recognizes that, first and foremost, we needed to be confident in our own vaccine efforts here at home — at which point we’d be able to do even more beyond our borders,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price. “That is precisely the message Secretary Blinken and his senior team have delivered in public and in private, pointing to the fact that, as long as the virus is spreading uncontrolled anywhere, it’s a threat to people everywhere, including Americans. The administration has now determined that we’re in a position to do more, and that’s precisely what we’ll do, building on what we’ve already done to lead the world in responding to Covid-19.”

Just this week the administration and the US Chamber of Commerce launched a public-private partnership to get urgently needed Covid-19 medical supplies to other countries. The effort — the Global Task Force on Pandemic Response: Mobilizing for India — was launched after Blinken met with the Chamber and CEOs from more than 40 countries on Monday.

“What we are witnessing in India is a stark reminder that while the United States has turned a corner in our efforts to combat the pandemic, our global partners are facing a staggering health crisis that requires a substantial public-private response,” said Suzanne Clark, president and chief executive officer of the US Chamber of Commerce. “This global crisis requires a global response, and the American business community could not be better positioned, or more determined, to help lead the way.”

World leaders have asked US to share vaccines

World leaders have asked the Biden administration officials to share excess vaccines and other emergency Covid-19 assistance for months.

Guatemalan officials raised access to vaccines during Monday’s meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, according to a source familiar with the meeting. Harris recognized the urgency, but didn’t commit to providing them, the source said.

Factors within the US, such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine coming back online, the fact that nearly 230 million shots have been administered and that all adults are now eligible, will put the US in a better position to share vaccines, according to a source familiar.

There is also the basic necessity of having the excess vaccines on hand and cleared for sharing. There are no AstraZeneca vaccines to be shared at this moment, according to an administration official, because those doses that are stockpiled in the US need to be cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency use before they can go out the door. About 10 million of those doses are waiting for that clearance and about 50 million are in various stages of production, the official said.

The Biden administration is also studying how to take on the pandemic globally by sharing medical supplies needed to fight pandemic and produce vaccines, not just by sharing vaccines.

The Biden administration has worked alongside allies to try and boost vaccine production globally with efforts like a partnership with the “Quad countries” — a loose alliance between Australia, India, Japan and the United States — which was launched earlier this year.

But other countries have already put tremendous effort into vaccine diplomacy.

Some US allies and partners have worried in recent months that China’s global effort to ramp up vaccine exports and vaccine production agreements so quickly will make it hard for the US to catch up, diplomats told CNN.

The US decided to share AstraZeneca does with neighboring countries — Mexico and Canada — earlier this year, as these concerns mounted. Mexico has been a recipient of China’s vaccine diplomacy, and they are also in discussions with Russia about getting doses of their vaccine.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

Article Topic Follows: Politics

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