Biden marks ‘tragic milestone’ of COVID in US at world summit

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden called on world leaders at a COVID-19 summit on Thursday to reinvigorate a lagging international commitment to attacking the virus as he led the United States to mark the “tragic milestone of a million deaths in America. He ordered flags to be flown at half-mast and warned against complacency around the world.

“This pandemic is not over,” Biden said at the second global pandemic summit. He spoke solemnly of the once unthinkable American toll: “1 million empty chairs around the family dinner table.”

The coronavirus has killed more than 999,000 people in the United States and at least 6.2 million people worldwide since emerging in late 2019, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Other tallies, including by the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association, put the figure at $1 million.

“Today we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States, 1 million deaths from COVID,” he said.

The president called on Congress to urgently provide billions more dollars for tests, vaccines and treatments, which lawmakers have so far been unwilling to provide.

This funding shortfall — Biden has requested an additional $22.5 billion in what he calls critically needed money — is a reflection of a faltering US resolve that is jeopardizing the global response to the pandemic, he says.

Eight months after using the first COVID summit to announce an ambitious pledge to donate 1.2 billion vaccine doses facing the world, the urgency of the United States and other nations to react has faded.

The momentum for vaccinations and treatments has faded even as more infectious variants increase and billions of people around the world remain unprotected.

Biden addressed the opening of the virtual summit Thursday morning with taped remarks and argued that the fight against COVID-19 “must remain an international priority.” The United States is co-hosting the summit with Germany, Indonesia, Senegal and Belize.

“This summit is an opportunity to renew our efforts to keep our foot on the accelerator when it comes to getting this pandemic under control and preventing future health crises,” Biden said.

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The United States has shipped nearly 540 million doses of vaccine to more than 110 countries and territories, according to the State Department — far more than any other donor country.

Leaders announced about $3 billion in new commitments to fight the virus, as well as a slew of new programs to boost access to vaccines and treatments around the world. But it was a much more modest result than at last year’s meeting.

After the delivery of more than a billion vaccines to the developing world, the problem is no longer a lack of vaccines but of the logistical support to get the doses into the arms. According to government data, more than 680 million doses of donated vaccines sat unused in developing countries because they expired and could not be administered quickly enough. As of March, 32 poorest countries had used less than half of the COVID-19 vaccines sent to them.

U.S. aid to promote and facilitate vaccinations abroad dried up earlier this year, and Biden has requested about $5 billion for the effort for the rest of the year.

“We have tens of millions of unclaimed doses because countries lack the resources to build their cold chains, which are basically the refrigeration systems, to fight misinformation and hire vaccinatorssaid White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week. She added that the summit “was going to be an opportunity to highlight the fact that we need additional funding to continue to be part of this effort around the world.”

“We will continue to fight for more funding here,” Psaki said. “But we will continue to press other countries to do more to help the world move forward as well.”

Congress has balked at the price of COVID-19 aid and has so far refused to accept the package due to political opposition to the impending end to pandemic-era migration restrictions at the US border. -Mexican. Even after a consensus on virus funding briefly emerged in March, lawmakers moved to cut funding for global aid and focus aid only on bolstering the US supply of booster vaccines and in therapies.

Biden warned that if Congress did not act, the United States could lose access to the next generation of vaccines and treatments, and the country would not have enough booster doses or the antiviral drug Paxlovid. for later this year. It also sounds the alarm that more variants will emerge if the United States and the world do not do more to contain the virus globally.

“To beat the pandemic here, we have to beat it everywhere,” Biden said last September at the first global summit.

Demand for COVID-19 vaccines has plummeted in some countries as infections and deaths have declined globally in recent months, especially as the omicron variant has been found to be less severe than earlier versions of the sickness. For the first time since its inception, the UN-supported COVAX effort has “sufficient supplies to enable countries to meet their national immunization goals”, according to Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of the alliance of Gavi vaccines, which runs COVAX.

Yet, although more than 65% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, less than 16% of people in poor countries have been immunized. Countries are highly unlikely to meet the World Health Organization’s goal of vaccinating 70% of the population by June.

In countries like Cameroon, Uganda and Ivory Coast, officials have struggled to get enough refrigerators to transport vaccines, send enough syringes for mass campaigns and get enough health workers. to inject vaccines. Experts also point out that more than half of the health workers needed to administer vaccines in the poorest countries are either underpaid or not paid at all.

Giving more vaccines, critics say, would miss the point.

“It’s like giving a bunch of fire trucks to countries on fire, but they don’t have water,” said Ritu Sharma, vice-president of the charity CARE, which has helped vaccinate people. people in more than 30 countries, including India, South Sudan and Bangladesh.

“We can’t give countries all of these vaccines but no way to use them,” she said, adding that the same infrastructure that got the vaccines delivered in the United States is now needed elsewhere. “We had to tackle this problem in the United States, so why aren’t we now using this knowledge to get vaccines to the people who need them most?”

Sharma said greater investment is also needed to counter vaccine hesitancy in developing countries where there are entrenched beliefs about the potential dangers of Western-made drugs.

Gavi’s Berkley also said countries are increasingly demanding the more expensive messenger RNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, which aren’t as readily available as the AstraZeneca vaccine, which made up the bulk of COVAX’s supply. Last year.

Variants like delta and omicron have led many countries to switch to mRNA vaccines, which appear to offer more protection and are in greater demand globally than traditionally made vaccines like those from China and Russia.

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Cheng reported from London. AP writer Chris Megerian contributed.

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