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U.S. Rejoins WHO, Participates in Int’l Vaccine Project

White House

(Jonathan Cutrer, Flickr)

21 Jan. 2021. In one of its first actions, the Biden administration rejoined the United States in the World Health Organization, reversing a policy of its predecessor. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at National Institutes of Health, says the U.S. is also taking part an international project backed by WHO to provide worldwide equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.

After his inauguration yesterday, President Biden issued a plan for combating the Covid-19 pandemic, including several actions for improving international cooperation to better predict and mitigate pandemics. One of the items is, “Immediately restore our relationship with the World Health Organization, which, while not perfect, is essential to coordinating a global response during a pandemic.” Some experts fault WHO’s early response to the pandemic for accepting Chinese government explanations at face value that may have delayed a coordinated worldwide campaign.

In July 2020, the U.S. stated its intention to leave WHO in a letter to the United Nations. Yesterday, in another letter to the U.N., President Biden retracted the July letter, stating “The United States intends to remain a member of the World Health Organization,” adding that the U.S. plans to be “a full participant”.

This morning, Fauci represented the U.S. in a meeting of WHO’s executive board, where he noted that the U.S. would also cease drawing down the number of U.S. officials assigned temporarily to WHO and fulfill its financial obligations to the organization. In addition, Fauci said the U.S. would join the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access, or Covax facility backed by World Health Organization, European Union, and several non-government organizations. Covax seeks to provide worldwide equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, designed and led by a group called Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

Arrangements for nearly 2 billion vaccine doses

The Covax facility has financial support from 98 countries, with those contributions supporting vaccine distribution to another 92 countries in lower resource regions. On 1 Sept. 2020, the U.S. announced it would not take part in Covax. As reported by Science & Enterprise, however, the Covid-19 relief bill that passed Congress last month includes $3.36 billion for Gavi and Covax.

Also last month, Covax announced the project made arrangements to secure nearly two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines. Those arrangements, says Covax, will mean 1.3 billion of those doses will be made available to 92 low- and middle-income economies eligible for assistance through Covax’s advance market commitment mechanism. That mechanism uses funds donated from 98 higher-income economies to purchase vaccines at large enough volumes to qualify for discounted prices.

Covax says its agreements include new deals for 170 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine candidate, and 500 million doses of the vaccine in development by Janssen, a Johnson & Johnson company. The group already has commitments from Serum Institute of India for 200 million doses, with an option for 900 more doses of either the AstraZeneca/Oxford or Novavax vaccine candidates. Vaccines made by Moderna, as well as Pfizer and BioNTech, now with emergency authorizations from the Food and Drug Administration are apparently not part of the Covax agreements.

Fauci said the U.S. would also take part in WHO’s Access to Covid-19 Tools, or ACT, Accelerator, a collaboration to speed development, production, and access to Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. WHO says it has commitments of $6 billion for ACT Accelerator, with another $4 billion expected. However, the program is still facing funding gaps of $23 to $27 billion.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

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