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The United States plans to purchase 500 million doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine that it will then donate to countries in need around the world.
The first 200 million doses will be sent out this year, with 300 million more shared in the first half of next year, three people familiar with the plan told the Washington Post on Wednesday.
COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed initiative to share COVID-19 doses across the globe, will distribute the doses to low- and middle-income countries. Pfizer is selling the doses to the United States at a "not-for-profit" price, sources told the Post on the condition of anonymity so they could share details that are not yet public.
Biden plans to announce the massive effort on Thursday at the start of the Group of Seven (G-7) meeting in Britain, the Post reported.
"The president is focused on helping to vaccinate the world because he believes it is the right thing to do; it's what Americans do in times of need," Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One, while declining to discuss specifics. "When we have the capacity, then we have the will, and we step up and we deliver."
Many public health experts and advocacy groups cheered the news, saying U.S. leadership on the issue will be critical to vaccinating the world.
"It's an extraordinary development," Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told the Post. The plan "sends a profound signal in terms of U.S. commitment to global health security and willingness to help end this pandemic for the world and the United States," she added.
Following a largely successful vaccination effort in the United States, Biden tapped COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients to oversee the country's global vaccination strategy. Zients has been working on the deal with Pfizer for more than a month, an official familiar with the deal told the Post.
"It is meaningful, but not sufficient on its own," said Thomas Bollyky, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its global health program.
On the one hand, 500 million doses is about six times the number of doses COVAX has distributed so far, he told the Post. On the other, it is just a quarter of the 2 billion doses COVAX aims to distribute this year. So far, COVAX has delivered just under 82 million doses to 129 countries, the newspaper said.
"These Pfizer doses will go to many countries," Bollyky said. "The big question is, in what order and in what amount? That will have significant bearing on what the public health impact of the commitment will be."
The gap between vaccines haves and have-nots is wide: More than half the populations in the United States and Britain have had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, while fewer than 2 percent of people in Africa have gotten a shot.
"We won't end this global pandemic anywhere unless we beat it everywhere," Tom Hart, acting CEO of the One Campaign, an organization focused on fighting global poverty and preventable disease, said in a statement. "Donating doses to COVAX will save lives, reduce the spread of variants, and help reopen the global economy. We urge other G-7 countries to follow the US' example and donate more doses to COVAX. If there was ever a time for global ambition and action to end the pandemic, it's now."
Variant that crippled India Seen in 6% of US cases
The highly contagious coronavirus variant that brought India to its knees this spring now accounts for 6 percent of new cases in the United States, the Biden administration said Tuesday.
Luckily, vaccines appear to work well against this version of the virus, which has spread like wildfire in Great Britain and threatens a full reopening of that country.
"It's essentially taking over" in the United Kingdom, Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a media briefing Tuesday. "We cannot let that happen in the United States, which is such a powerful argument" for vaccination, he stressed.
To demonstrate the efficacy of vaccines, Fauci referred to data from Britain's public health agency that shows two doses of the vaccines made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca are 88 percent effective in preventing symptomatic disease caused by the new variant, also known as Delta. He added that the Pfizer data would be similar for Moderna's product, which also is an mRNA vaccine, the Post reported.
But just one shot only offers just 33 percent protection, the data shows, a reminder of how strongly the second shot boosts immunity to the virus, Fauci said. With the United States in the midst of providing vaccines to adolescents and other people who have waited to get them, second doses are critical, he added.
Fauci noted infection rates in Britain are "peaking" among 12- to 20-year-olds, one of the groups that the United States is rushing to vaccinate. In Britain, the Delta variant now accounts for more than 60 percent of new infections, he said, and some British scientists are warning that the country now faces the possibility of a third surge, the Post reported.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 infections are at new lows in the United States, but the virus continues to spread in communities with low vaccination rates, where highly contagious virus variants like Delta threaten those who have not had shots.
In Smith County, Tenn., where only 20 percent of people are fully vaccinated, there has been an almost 700 percent increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 over the past two weeks, The New York Times reported. In Trousdale, Tenn., where only 23 percent of people have had two vaccine doses, hospitalizations have also surged by 700 percent in the same period.
People who become ill with COVID-19 now are, "in most age groups, twice as likely to end up hospitalized as people who got the virus earlier in the course of the pandemic," Dr. Ted Delbridge, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, told the Times.
In Maryland, of those between the ages of 50 and 59 who contracted COVID-19 over the winter, about 8 percent were hospitalized, he said. From the end of April through the beginning of June, the hospitalization rate in that group was 19 percent, he told the Times.
Dangerous variants are likely to blame, Delbridge said. The variant first found in Britain, now known as Alpha, is deadlier and more contagious than most others and is now dominant in the United States. Last month, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the variant made up 72 percent of U.S. cases at the time, the Times said.
But vaccines appear to have worked against the Alpha variant in this country.
"I think we got lucky, to be honest," Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at Yale University, told the Times. "We're being rescued by the vaccine."
SOURCES: Washington Post; The New York Times
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