At Biden's summit, other nations pledge billions to bolster Covid-19 response

Flags being lowered to half-mast in commemoration of the US' Covid-19 death toll on May 12, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Joe Biden and other leaders issued an urgent call on Thursday (May 12) for the world to step up its fight against Covid-19, and countries including Germany, Canada and Japan pledged large sums to finance tests, therapeutics and vaccines - a commitment Biden could not make because Congress has refused to authorise new pandemic aid.

As the United States approached a harrowing milestone - 1 million American lives lost to the virus - fear of another deadly variant loomed large over the president's second global Covid-19 summit, a virtual gathering co-hosted by Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal. But some countries were notably absent. China, in the thick of its own Covid-19 crisis, did not attend. Russia, waging war against Ukraine, was not invited.

Senior Biden administration officials said the summit produced more than US$3 billion (S$4 billion) in commitments towards the global response and towards efforts to prevent future pandemics. That is far short of the US$15 billion that the World Health Organisation says is needed. But the summit did lay the groundwork for a new global preparedness fund.

The gathering on Thursday unfolded in a very different climate compared with that of the first Covid-19 summit in September. The war in Ukraine is sapping energy and money from donor nations. The global vaccination campaign has stalled. Testing has plummeted around the globe. Covid-19 antiviral pills, available in the United States, are scarce in many low- and middle-income nations. Many attendees said Covid-19 fatigue had become as big a danger as Covid-19 itself.

"There's still so much left to do; this pandemic isn't over," Biden said in his opening remarks, adding, "We have to prevent complacency."

But the president's tone was tepid when compared with some of the other participants, who included heads of state, global health officials and philanthropic leaders. Several, including Dr. Joy St. John, the executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, said that climate change was speeding up the cycle of pandemics, making the next outbreak inevitable.

"The next virus may kill even more people and cause even greater economic disruption," she warned.

Bill Gates, a software entrepreneur and philanthropist whose foundation has donated tens of millions of dollars to pandemic relief efforts - and who tested positive for the coronavirus this week - railed against global health inequities.

"We need to make more lifesaving tools and allocate them based on need rather than wealth," Gates declared, adding, "We don't have time to waste."

Before the summit began, Biden ordered flags lowered to half-staff at the White House and all federal buildings and military installations until Monday in commemoration of the nation's death toll.

As of Wednesday, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had reported more than 995,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States; a New York Times database put the figure at more than 997,000. But with heads of state, leaders of philanthropies and pharmaceutical executives attending the virtual gathering, Biden was ready to mark the coming moment.

Globally, the World Health Organisation has said that nearly 15 million more people died during the first two years of the pandemic than would have been expected during normal times. That estimate far exceeds the official Covid-19 death toll reported by countries.

Despite the gloomy predictions, summit participants did report some progress. Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, told attendees that in Ghana, the percentage of eligible people fully vaccinated doubled between December and April and now stands at 25.4 per cent. Uganda has also seen a surge in vaccination.

"Now is not the time to back down; it is the time to push ahead," she said, "even if this fight may drag on longer than any of us want."

The White House instructed participants to come to Thursday's summit with significant commitments - either financial or non-monetary. One by one, over the course of four virtual sessions, philanthropies and drugmakers stepped up.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany pledged US$1.5 billion, saying his country "wants to lead by example". Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said his country would donate US$732 million. South Korea offered US$300 million.

The Clinton Health Access Initiative said it had negotiated agreements with drug manufacturers to make generic versions of Pfizer's Covid-19 antiviral, Paxlovid, available for less than US$25 per course. Merck, whose Covid-19 antiviral, molnupiravir, has already been distributed in generic form in 15 countries, said it would make 2 million courses of the drug available at a "best access price" to low- and middle-income nations.

The United States, which has already committed US$19 billion to the global response, did not come entirely empty-handed. The Biden administration is putting forth a relatively small amount of money at the meeting: US$200 million for the World Bank fund to prepare for future pandemics and $20 million for pilot projects to bring coronavirus tests and treatments to poor nations.

"We've got to puncture the complacency about this, to make sure that people realise that if we don't act, another variant is a possibility - and we don't know how lethal it could be," former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, who is now the World Health Organisation's ambassador for global health financing, said this week.

Biden has asked Congress for US$22.5 billion - including US$5 billion to fight the global pandemic - in emergency coronavirus aid, but the proposal is stuck on Capitol Hill, even as Congress hurries to approve US$40 billion in emergency aid for Ukraine.

Lawmakers are still struggling to figure out how to advance a pared-down US$10 billion coronavirus package. A group of former heads of state, including Brown, and Nobel laureates called this week for Congress to fulfill Biden's request.

The United States is also making a significant non-monetary commitment: The National Institutes of Health has agreed to license its "stabilised spike protein technology" - a crucial component of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments - to companies through the Medicines Patent Pool, a global non-profit backed by the WHO that works to bring medicines to low- and middle-income nations at low cost.

The move is significant because it may lay the groundwork for other countries and companies to share their technologies, said Peter Maybarduk, who directs the global access to medicines programme for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

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