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President Biden pledges investment in vaccine components, but will that help the world?

3 min read

President Biden plans to invest $2.7 billion to ramp up U.S. production of critical vaccine components, saying the investment would help make the United States the “arsenal of vaccines for the world.”

But countries struggling with vaccine shortages amid the latest wave of Covid-19 infections say they don’t need vaccine supplies they need the vaccine itself, and they don’t have the ability to produce it.

Epidemiologists said the plans announced Thursday, while laudable, may do little to change a fundamental dynamic: Worldwide, 81 percent of shots that have been administered were in high- and upper-middle-income countries, while less than 0.4 percent of doses have been given out in low-income countries, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

James Krellenstein, a founder of the AIDS advocacy group PrEP4All, said that the $2.7 billion “does seem like a very significant investment” in the vaccine supply chain.

But he questioned whether there is adequate capacity in the United States to make “drug substance” — the core ingredients of the vaccines — and whether the fresh investment would actually spur major vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna to make more doses.

“It’s kind of like there is a massive cake shortage right now, and instead of making more bakeries, we are making more flour and assuming more cakes will be baked,” he said. “The question I have is, does the Biden administration have any plans to make more bakeries?”

Experts say the investment in supplies — including lipids, bioreactor bags, tubing, needles and syringes — is one that tackles the biggest hurdles facing vaccine production. These materials needed for mRNA vaccines have never been available on a large scale.

Mr. Biden and his aides point out that the United States has already either donated or pledged about 600 million vaccine doses to other countries. His administration has also taken steps to expand coronavirus vaccine manufacturing in the United States and India, and is supporting production in South Africa and Senegal to expand access to locally produced vaccines in Africa.

But the experts say the 600 million doses the U.S. has promised for use abroad are only a small fraction of the 11 billion that are needed to slow the spread of the virus worldwide, and it remains unclear who the ultimate beneficiaries of the investment will be.

“This is important,” said Peter Maybarduk, the director of the Access to Medicines program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. “But my sense is that we’re going to have a long way to go.”

Activists have been calling for the Biden administration to contribute resources for vaccine manufacturing around the world in order to establish regional self-sufficiency. They also want the administration to press major vaccine makers to share their recipes and technical know-how with other companies — a process known as “tech transfer,” which Thursday’s announcement did not address.

Public Citizen has proposed a $25 billion investment to retrofit manufacturing facilities around the world, with the goal of making 8 billion doses of mRNA vaccine in one year.

Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World

More than 5.41 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 71 doses for every 100 people.

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