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U.S. To Send Millions Of Additional COVID Vaccine Doses Overseas

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. is extending its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic to other nations. President Biden announced yesterday the planned shipment of 20 million doses of coronavirus vaccine abroad to countries in need. This is going to happen in June.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Just as in World War II, America was the arsenal of democracy in the battle against COVID-19 pandemic. Our nation is going to be the arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world.

MARTIN: The vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson will be in addition to the 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine promised once the FDA clears it for use. Gayle Smith is the State Department's coordinator for the Global COVID Response, and she joins us now. Thanks so much for being here.

GAYLE SMITH: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So UNICEF and the World Health Organization have repeatedly made the point that countries with ample supplies of vaccines need to share them in order to bring the pandemic under control around the world. So why is June the right time for this push?

SMITH: Well, I think our aim is to do this as quickly as possible. The need for vaccines globally is very, very, very high. And with this announcement yesterday, that means that we will be able to deploy the 80 million vaccines around the world. We hope also that this will lead to other countries stepping up and doing more to share their vaccines so that we can start to get the coverage we need.

MARTIN: How is the allocation going to work? I mean, how do you know - determine which countries to send it to?

SMITH: Right. We're looking at that now. We're looking, obviously, at all regions because there is need across the globe. And we will be working very closely with something called COVAX, which is the international entity that handles vaccine delivery, including for the world's poorest countries, and with other partners, so that we can see a steady supply in as many places as possible.

MARTIN: Because the U.S. has bilateral agreements with countries like Mexico and Canada that it also needs to fulfill, right?

SMITH: Well, we've got to look - obviously, in our hemisphere is going to be very important. But one of the things that's very, very clear is that every region in the world is urgently seeking more vaccines so that they can get to the point that we are beginning to get to in the United States and some other countries and that we can collectively bring this pandemic under control.

MARTIN: Which outbreaks are most concerning to you as you look at this problem set?

SMITH: Well, right now, we're seeing surges in a number of places. Obviously, India has caught the world's attention, and we've been mounting an emergency response there. Our U.S. Agency for International Development is now mounting an additional response to India's neighbors, including Nepal. But we are seeing upticks again in every region. And there is some evidence that the variant that was first detected in India is moving east and west. So we anticipate that we will see surges around the world on a fairly regular basis. The challenge is to get out ahead of that.

MARTIN: Yeah. You said that part of this is an effort to incentivize other countries that have vaccines to share as well. Are you talking specifically about European partners?

SMITH: Yeah, there are a number of countries, and many of them have already indicated an interest in sharing or begun doing so, not to the extent of the United States - 80 million puts us way out in front. But, again, I think our finding is when we talk to our partners in the G-7, when we talk to other partners around the world, there is a real desire and commitment to sharing more doses. And so I think we will see an increase in sharing all over the world.

MARTIN: Obviously, getting vaccine to the countries that are hardest hit is of paramount concern, but it's not going to be enough in and of itself, right? I mean, each of these countries are going to have to eventually be able to figure it out. Production's going to have to be ramped up in these places, technology shared. How does the U.S. and the Biden administration plan to contribute to those areas?

SMITH: Well, you're exactly right, Rachel. And the dose sharing is only one part of a broad vaccine strategy. First, we've got to expand supply, and we are working on that through a number of things. One is engaging the producers, but the other is to make some of the investments that can yield short to medium-term expansions in production in various parts of the world. Additional funding for COVAX, which is targeting 92 countries around the world - we're the largest donor with a recent contribution of $2 billion - that's a really, really key point as well. So we've got to move on all of these fronts.

MARTIN: Gayle Smith is the coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security at the State Department. We appreciate you taking the time. Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.