Advocates criticize ‘tepid’ Biden request for global COVID-19 funding
Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups say the Biden administration’s request for $5 billion from Congress for efforts to fight COVID-19 globally, including vaccinations, falls far short of what is needed.
They had been pushing for months for $17 billion to step up global vaccination and treatment efforts, but the White House asked for less than a third of that amount in informal talks with Congress last week, without offering an explanation.
“Honestly, it’s not enough,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who has been helping lead the push in Congress for more funding.
Experts say stepping up efforts to vaccinate the world are crucial both for straightforward humanitarian reasons and for the United States’ own self-interest. If the virus remains unchecked abroad, new variants can form that can threaten the U.S., just as omicron did after being detected in southern Africa.
Lawmakers face a March 11 deadline for funding the government, a package which could include the global COVID-19 funds as well as more money for the domestic response.
“I’m concerned that in the current appropriations season, the window is closing,” Krishnamoorthi said.
The ONE Campaign, which has been helping lead the push for greater global vaccination efforts, called the Biden administration’s request “tepid” and “disappointing.”
“President Biden said he wants to lead,” said Tom Hart, the group’s president. “He’s going to host a summit sometime in the first quarter to galvanize global leaders. You can’t show up to that with a paltry commitment, new commitment. So we’re pretty disappointed.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development said the $5 billion request is to meet “immediate” needs, but did not specifically address the calls for higher levels of funding.
Hanging over the effort is the fact that the administration’s separate request for $30 billion focused on the domestic coronavirus response has run into resistance in Congress, particularly from Republicans, who object to additional money, saying that the emergency is winding down and billions have already been spent.
Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, said he thinks congressional resistance on the domestic side “likely played into” the lower request on the global side.
He called the $5 billion global ask“disappointingly low.”
As the supply of vaccine doses has improved from the early days of the response, the focus and need for funding has shifted to some degree to efforts to get the shots into people’s arms.
Experts say funding is needed from everything from obtaining freezers and other cold chain storage needed for the vaccines, to hiring and training vaccinators, to communications efforts to fight misinformation and vaccine hesitancy abroad.
The White House has frequently touted that it has committed to donating 1.2 billion doses of vaccine for the world, of which more than 400 million have been donated so far, more than any other country in the world.
“The U.S. has done more than the rest of the world, whether it’s in putting money on the table or dose donations,” Udayakumar said. “The challenge is the world isn’t doing nearly enough. So just saying ‘we’re doing more’ shouldn’t be the bar that we’re trying to meet. The real question should be ‘Are we doing enough to meet the need?’ and the clear answer is ‘no.’”
Just 11 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to a tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Hart, of the ONE Campaign, argued that there is willingness on Capitol Hill for a robust global response.
“The message that we’re not going to get out of this pandemic until there’s a global solution seems to have resonated on Capitol Hill,” he said. “And so we really hope the administration will seize that opportunity.”
At least one key Republican lawmaker, Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), told The Hill earlier this month that he is open to global vaccine funding.
“I think we’ve always thought we eventually needed to include as much help to countries that couldn’t help themselves as we could,” he said.
Hart said the administration has been “tight-lipped” about why it is not requesting more for the global response, and Krishnamoorthi likewise said he has received “silence” from the administration on the issue.
“If the world isn’t vaccinated — and currently, we are far from the 70 percent global vaccination rates we are aiming for — new variants are going to keep coming back to reinfect America,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in a statement to The Hill. “I and others in Congress have been advocating for $17 billion based on our understanding of the scope of the challenge, so I question whether $5 billion alone will be sufficient, and I would like to hear more from the administration on the data underpinning their request.”
In addition to funding, advocates have also called for the administration to take steps such as compelling vaccine makers to share their know-how abroad, as well as doing more to boost vaccine manufacturing.
Udayakumar said investing in increasing access to treatments is also important, given that especially with new variants, vaccines do not offer 100 percent protection. But he said vaccination is still key for significantly reducing transmission, even if they do not entirely eliminate it.
He pointed to past estimates saying the world as a whole needs to put forward $50 billion to end the pandemic globally.
“Almost nobody’s stepping up to provide that funding,” he said.
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