On World Health Day, US Lacks Funding for Global COVID Response

Without a single dollar of the $5 billion it requested for its global COVID-19 response approved, the Biden administration’s key program to help vaccinate the world is in danger of grinding to a halt.

Even as the administration marked World Health Day on Thursday with a commitment to build a safer, healthier and more equitable future around the globe, without additional funding from Congress, by September the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will no longer be able to finance Global Vax. The U.S. launched the international initiative in December to deliver shots in arms in 11 countries: Angola, Ivory Coast, Eswatini, Ghana, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

“Without additional funding to support getting shots into arms, USAID will have to curtail our growing efforts to turn vaccines into vaccinations — just as countries are finally gaining access to the vaccine supplies needed to protect their citizens,” a USAID spokesperson told VOA. USAID had initially requested $19 billion for its global vaccination initiatives.

USAID had planned to expand Global Vax to 20 additional countries, but those plans are now on hold.

Without additional funding, the U.S. will also be unable to provide oxygen and other lifesaving supplies around the world, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters earlier this week.

“And our global genomic sequencing capabilities will fall off and undermine our ability to detect any emerging variants around the world,” Zients added.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate agreed to provide $10 billion in supplemental funding for COVID-19 response domestically but did not approve the $5 billion requested by the White House for its global pandemic efforts.

With Senate Republicans insisting that any new COVID-19 spending be paid for with unspent funds from the nearly $6 trillion in COVID-19 legislation that had already been passed, Senate Democrats dropped the international funding request to get the domestic package approved first.

“While we were unable to reach an agreement on international aid in this new agreement, many Democrats and Republicans are committed to pursuing a second supplemental later this spring,” Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who had been leading negotiations with Schumer on the $10 billion COVID-19 domestic response package, said he is willing to explore a fiscally responsible solution to support global pandemic efforts in the weeks ahead.

Airports to arms

Globally, the issue now is not the lack of vaccine doses but the ability of getting them “from airports to arms,” said Krishna Udayakumar, who leads a Duke University team that tracks global vaccine production, distribution and donation.

“How do we make sure that the trained vaccinators are there, the data system, the cold chain, that’s where a lot more money is needed,” Udayakumar told VOA.

The administration has already purchased all of the 1.2 billion doses of vaccines it has pledged to donate around the world. However, without the additional funding, some of them are in danger of expiring in warehouses in the U.S., said global health advocate Tom Hart.

Hart, president of the ONE Campaign, an advocacy organization that fights preventable diseases, said that in his decadeslong career in global health, he has never seen the U.S. reneging on its commitment.

“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, every time we have pledged to deliver something, the United States has been able to keep that pledge, and it has created enormous goodwill around the world,” Hart told VOA.

But now, U.S. credibility is on the line. “We’ve said with great fanfare that we have these incredibly effective doses. And they are sitting here in America, ready to go to those who need them, and we can’t get them to them,” he said.

The White House said it will continue to work with lawmakers to push for additional international funding.

“We’re not quite there yet,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked by VOA about the fate of those undelivered doses. “And our hope is that we will be able to turn … vaccines into vaccinations.”

Other multilateral programs may have to step in to pick up the U.S. slack, including the COVID Vaccine Delivery Partnership mechanism established earlier this year as the next phase of COVAX, the international vaccine-sharing facility supported by the World Health Organization and health organizations Gavi and CEPI.

“The aim of the partnership is to focus on providing bespoke support for those countries furthest behind in coverage: coordinating efforts around delivery funding, technical assistance, demand planning and political engagement, led by countries themselves,” a Gavi spokesperson told VOA.

The administration would not say whether it is pushing for a separate global pandemic funding package, or one that is attached to potential additional funding for Ukraine and the global food crisis, which could come in weeks or months.

It is also not providing details on when President Joe Biden will host the second global COVID-19 summit, originally scheduled for March. Biden hosted the first summit in September 2021 when he sought to galvanize a robust response from wealthy nations to help vaccinate the world.

VOA Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.