"Arsenal of the world": Biden announces expanded vaccine exports, but does he have a plan?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

A good move, to be sure, as we near the end of domestic demand for COVID-19 vaccinations. But does Joe Biden have a plan for becoming the pandemic’s “arsenal of the world,” or is this yet another instant reaction to criticism over a lack of strategic thinking? Less than a week ago, sources within the White House were complaining to the Washington Post about the latter:

“History is going to measure whether we’re up to the task. I believe we are,” Biden said on Jan. 21, unveiling a seven-goal, 200-page plan that he vowed would curb the virus here and abroad while preparing for future pandemics.

But almost four months later, the last of those seven goals — a vow to “restore U.S. leadership globally” detailed in 11 pages of that nascent plan — remains the subject of intense debate within the administration and of growing concern overseas, with officials still wrestling over how to fill in the many blanks in Biden’s plan as cities in India run out of space to cremate their dead.

Global allies want more clarity on how the United States plans to share its resources, know-how — and especially, its growing vaccine stockpile. Advocates say there’s no time to waste, pointing to virus surges crippling India and other countries that collectively reported more than 5 million cases in the past week. …

Even some administration officials concede that Biden’s recent decision to support the developing world’s petition for a vaccine-patent waiver, which drove a wedge with drug companies that sped hundreds of millions of doses to inoculate America and is unlikely to boost supply this year, shows the risk of dribbling out tactics, rather than setting out a comprehensive strategy to help vaccinate the world.

“Where is the plan?” asked one Department of Health and Human Services official involved in the coronavirus response who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. “The waiver is not a plan.”

Perhaps Joe Biden got a whiff of how the media and the world was judging him at the moment, let alone “history.” Suddenly after three months without any plan at all, Biden announced yesterday that the US would start sharing its stock of vaccines — and not just the AstraZeneca doses that aren’t yet approved, but the big guns from Pfizer and Moderna:

President Joe Biden said the U.S. will share at least 20 million doses of U.S.-authorized Covid-19 vaccines with foreign nations by the end of June, the first time his administration will release doses abroad that could have been used domestically.

Biden said Monday he’ll export 20 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. or Johnson & Johnson, on top of 60 million AstraZeneca Plc doses he had already planned to give to other countries. The AstraZeneca vaccine lacks Food and Drug Administration approval for U.S. use.

“It’s the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, it’s the strong thing to do,” Biden said at the White House. By the end of June, he said, the U.S. will have taken delivery of enough doses of the authorized vaccines to inoculate its entire population age 12 and older.

It is the right and smart thing to do, especially as vaccines pile up. We overbought doses in Operation Warp Speed because we had no clear idea which vaccines would prove safe and effective — if any. The US ended up with an abundance of riches in that regard, earmarked for nearly a billion doses between all of the OWS candidates. Don’t forget that Novavax still has a candidate to submit as well, which might end up being used almost exclusively as an export at this point.

However, we should have had a plan in place all along to export vaccines strategically. We could have avoided some ambiguity by establishing benchmarks for exports months ago so our allies and partners could know what to expect. Instead, Biden ended up acting reactively, essentially getting pushed into the correct choice by criticism rather than plan for success.

The delay in moving to the “arsenal of the world” position was unavoidable, but both China and Russia rushed to fill that gap with its vaccine diplomacy over the last few months. Russia’s Sputnik vaccines appear effective but their production for export has been all but non-existent. China’s production has been massive, but their vaccines are all but ineffective. Allahpundit wrote about the Seychelles’ experience with Sinopharm vaccines two weeks ago, but it’s gotten even worse:

The Seychelles is viewed as having conducted a very successful vaccination rollout so far; it can boast having the highest share of people vaccinated against Covid-19 anywhere in the world, above Israel and the U.K.

The majority of vaccinated people have received China’s Sinopharm vaccine (approved for emergency use by the WHO last Friday) as well as the AstraZeneca shot (known as Covishield locally, a version produced in India). In total, the Seychelles with a population of over 97,000 has recorded just under 8,200 cases and 28 deaths during the pandemic.

On Monday, the Seychelles’ health ministry reported a steep rise in the number of cases. From 120 new cases reported on April 30, a week later over 300 cases per day were recorded on May 7 and May 8, respectively.

The Seychelles’ small population makes per-capita graphing a bit hyperbolic, but …

It’s not as if we didn’t already suspect this. The data from UAE, Chile, and Bahrain (which Smith also highlights in the thread) shows very little impact from mass Sinopharm vaccinations as well. The UAE began planning for third doses of Sinopharm to see if they improved performance. Two weeks ago, the World Health Organization declared a “very low confidence” in China’s vaccine data, if not the vaccines themselves:

WHO experts have voiced “very low confidence” in data provided by Chinese state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm on its COVID-19 vaccine regarding the risk of serious side-effects in some patients, but overall confidence in its ability to prevent the disease, a document seen by Reuters shows.

A World Health Organization spokesman said that the document on Sinopharm vaccine BBIBP-CorV was “one of many resources” on which recommendations are made, tentatively scheduled to be issued later this week. …

Vaccine efficacy in multi-country Phase 3 clinical trials was 78.1% after two doses, the document said. This was a slight drop from 79.34% announced previously in China.

“We are very confident that 2 doses of BBIBP-CorV are efficacious in preventing PCR confirmed COVID19 in adults (18-59 years),” the document said.

But it added: “Analysis of safety amongst participants with comorbidities (was) limited by the low number of participants with comorbidities (other than obesity) in the Phase 3 trial.”

Given the real-world data from countries relying on China’s vaccines, WHO needs to revisit its imprimatur on Sinopharm. The Biden initiative is needed now more than ever, even in places thought to be girded against the pandemic. Let’s hope the White House is finally doing the planning necessary for it, and not just taking one-off actions to appease critics.