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Biden Will Try To Rally The World To Boost COVID-19 Vaccinations As The U.N. Meets

Palestinian Health Ministry staff members in Nablus receive 300,000 doses of COVID vaccines donated by the United States through through the COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative on August 24, 2021.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh
AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian Health Ministry staff members in Nablus receive 300,000 doses of COVID vaccines donated by the United States through through the COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative on August 24, 2021.

Updated September 17, 2021 at 7:26 PM ET

Facing criticism for its plan to give Americans third doses of COVID-19 vaccines while millions in the world's poorest countries are still waiting for a first shot, the White House is planning a virtual summit next week to try to spur efforts to boost the pace of global vaccinations.

The Wednesday meeting is timed for when world leaders are in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, an event which itself has been pared down as officials try to contain the chances to spread the coronavirus.

Global health advocates had been pushing for weeks for the Biden administration to take on a stronger leadership role in getting vaccines distributed around the world.

Administration officials aren't saying exactly who is expected to attend Wednesday, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that the goal is to "rally civil society, NGOs, philanthropists and industry along with world leaders."

The World Health Organization and other groups have urged the United States to hold back on broad plans for booster shots, arguing that poorer countries need the vaccines more. The Biden administration has pushed back on criticism, arguing that the U.S. has enough doses to vaccinate Americans while also sharing more vaccines globally than any other nation.

Low-income countries have gotten less than 1% of all the doses given so far globally in this pandemic.

The White House hasn't confirmed reports that President Biden will set a goal of 70% of the world's population being vaccinated by September 2022, when leaders convene next year for the U.N. General Assembly.

"We are in a race against time," said Carolyn Reynolds of the Pandemic Action Network, one of many advocates who has been pushing the administration to pick up the pace on global vaccine distribution. "We urge all world leaders to commit to the summit targets to vaccinate 70% of the world's population in less than 12 months, save lives now, and ensure the world is prepared for the next pandemic."

The summit will also address shortages of oxygen for COVID patients and personal protective equipment for health workers. The announcement also talks about accountability: setting targets, tracking progress and actually making sure goals are met.

That sort of accountability is something Dr. Krishna Udayakumar at Duke University has been pushing for. Over the course of the pandemic, there have been many promises, but some countries have backtracked or failed to meet goals for vaccine sharing after the delta variant changed the calculation on their domestic needs.

"That is a point we have been pushing on — lack of leadership and accountability is the core challenge to global response," said Udayakumar at the Duke Global Health Institute.

So far, the United States has distributed 140 million vaccine doses to approximately 100 countries. The Biden administration has pledged to distribute 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the coming months and has hinted an even larger pledge may be coming.

White House COVID response coordinator Jeff Zients didn't directly answer when asked by a reporter during a briefing Friday whether an additional large vaccine contract would be announced in conjunction with the summit.

"It's critical that this summit is not just a flash in the pan but the start of a full-force, coordinated effort to combat this pandemic globally," said Jenny Ottenhoff at the One Campaign. "That includes clear, time-bound commitments to get vaccines to Africa and low-income countries everywhere. Everyone is on the hook to deliver."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.