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With spectators barred from the Olympic Games because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and cases rising in areas around the world, particularly among unvaccinated people, rich governments face growing pressure to take bolder steps to address what critics have called “vaccine apartheid.”
As the Games formally kicked off Friday—following the launch of a new “Stop Playing Games” campaign to demand that wealthy countries invest in a global vaccine manufacturing plan—dozens of members of Congress called for including additional funding in the reconciliation package to produce and distribute Covid-19 vaccines worldwide.
The call was spearheaded by Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). It is based on the Nullifying Opportunities for Variants to Infect and Decimate (NOVID) Act that Krishnamoorthi and some of the co-signers introduced last month.
Friday’s letter (pdf), signed by more than 70 lawmakers, was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It was also sent to the budget committee chairs in both chambers—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.)—who play a key role in developing the reconciliation package that Democrats are working to pass alongside a bipartisan infrastructure deal.
“No investment in the fight against Covid-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible,” the lawmakers wrote to congressional leadership.
“Even assuming wealthy countries will be fully vaccinated by mid-2021, the global economic cost of not vaccinating lower-income countries is estimated to be $9 trillion per year, or nearly 10% of global GDP,” they continued. “$34 billion is a small price to pay to help return the U.S. and global economy to normalcy, and we request that such an amount is included in the upcoming spending package.”
While recognizing the contributions that the United States has already made to COVAX, a global initiative co-led by the World Health Organization focused on equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, the letter also emphasizes that the U.S. has not done its fair share and details how a $34 billion investment could help address the facts that “only 1% of people in low-income countries [are] vaccinated and over 6 billion worldwide… have yet to receive a dose.”
As Krishnamoorthi put it in June: “Despite the progress we’ve made here at home, the coronavirus continues to devastate other parts of the world, and these outbreaks represent a threat to Americans with an increased risk of double and triple mutation variants which the vaccines we have today may not be able to stop.”
The letter says that “estimates indicate that it will cost up to $25 billion to create enough vaccine manufacturing capacity around the world to vaccinate 60% of the populations in the COVAX countries, plus another $8.5 billion to ensure end-to-end delivery of the vaccines.”
The lawmakers’ call for greater U.S. investment in vaccine equity comes as the highly contagious Delta variant is spreading across the globe—including in the United States—and uncertainty over an emergency waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments so that countries worldwide can ramp up production.
Earlier this week, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said that text-based negotiations on the TRIPS waiver proposal “are moving slowly at this time, as members try to reconcile differing views and approaches. We are currently working hard to see how we can help members bridge their gaps and move these negotiations forward.”
As Common Dreams reported Tuesday, WTO’s TRIPS Council is not scheduled to meet again until September, almost a year after India and South Africa first proposed the waiver.
Although U.S. President Joe Biden was widely praised in May for shifting course and endorsing a TRIPS waiver, he has since faced criticism for not doing enough to convince leaders of other rich countries to follow suit—particularly Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
As mask mandates and other public health measures are being considered in communities across the country, the New York Times reported Friday that “Biden administration health officials increasingly think that vulnerable populations will need booster shots even as research continues into how long the coronavirus vaccines remain effective.”
While the Biden administration—already accused of hoarding vaccines by global justice campaigners—weighs a potential third shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines for people who are age 65 or older or those with compromised immune systems, the president faces pressure from around the world to approach the pandemic as a global problem.
“Dear Pres. Biden, It is past time to launch a vaccine manufacturing program to meet global need and end the pandemic,” tweeted Peter Maybarduk, Access to Medicines director at Public Citizen, one of the groups behind the new #StopPlayingGames campaign.
“If we can come together for the Olympic Games during a pandemic,” Maybarduk said, “we can come together to end vaccine apartheid.”