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The world needs more COVID vaccines, so the U.S. is helping finance overseas plants

President Biden told Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta that the U.S. would donate 17 million COVID vaccine doses to the African Union. The U.S. is also working to boost production on the continent.
President Biden told Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta that the U.S. would donate 17 million COVID vaccine doses to the African Union. The U.S. is also working to boost production on the continent.

Updated October 18, 2021 at 3:32 PM ET

When President Biden met with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta last week, he said the United States would donate millions of COVID-19 doses to the African Union, part of an effort to close the vaccination gap between rich and poor nations.

This week, his top development financing official is traveling to South Africa and India to talk about how the United States can help boost vaccine production in parts of the world where vaccination rates have lagged.

David Marchick of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation is leading a team of Biden officials on the trip. They will visit three vaccine manufacturing sites that Marchick says could help produce 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of 2022.

"We're trying to help create hubs for vaccine manufacturing and hubs for this type of expertise," Marchick told NPR. "Much like Silicon Valley is a hub for technology."

The DFC helps secure U.S. financing for infrastructure projects in the developing world. The organization was created, in part, to compete with China's infrastructure loan program, the Belt and Road Initiative.

Since the start of the Biden administration, the DFC has committed nearly $600 million to COVID vaccine-related investments. Marchick's team will meet with health ministers and pharmaceutical executives. In South Africa, they plan to tour the facilities of Aspen Pharmacare, which is making Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and visit the Biovac Institute in Cape Town where Pfizer vaccines will be produced.

In Hyderabad, India, U.S. officials will help unveil a new facility the DFC is financing that will produce over a billion doses of COVID vaccines, including J&J.

"What we've learned through the pandemic is that we need more manufacturing, we need stronger supply chains and we need diversification of the supply chains," Marchick said. "So we've been focused on driving manufacturing in different regions in large countries like India and smaller countries like South Africa."

The U.S. and other rich countries have been criticized for hoarding vaccines

Biden has committed to sharing a total of 1.1 billion vaccine doses around the globe, part of his pledge to make the United States what he calls the "arsenal of vaccines" for the world. But he's also faced criticism from the World Health Organization and others for offering booster shots to fully vaccinated Americans when millions of people around the world have yet to receive a first dose.

Experts estimate that 11 billion doses are necessary to fully vaccinate 70% of the world's population. The U.S has pledge to donate more doses than any other nation, including the latest pledge of more than 17 million doses to the African Union.

It's clear that richer nations like the United States can do more, said Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, which has been tracking data on vaccine pledges and donations. He credited the administration for boosting manufacturing abroad, but he said it's hard to consider the United States "the arsenal of vaccines" when the country has only actually shipped 190 million vaccines to date.

"We're nowhere near what needs to happen to even turn the corner on this pandemic, especially in Africa. The inequities have continued to get worse, not better," Udayakumar said.

Producing more vaccines overseas is critical to reaching vaccination goals

The World Health Organization has set a goal to vaccinate at least 40% of every country of its people by the end of 2021. That goal seems almost insurmountable in Africa where less than 5% of the region has been vaccinated, according to the WHO.

John Simon, who served as U.S. ambassador to the African Union in the Bush administration, said it's crucial that vaccine production be increased in and around Africa.

"Without more manufacturing facilities in Africa, Africa is completely dependent on companies from outside of Africa, for whom they are a tiny fraction of their overall business," he said, "and who will not seek to serve Africa at the front of the line or even in the middle of the line."

Marchick said the administration is focused on addressing the challenge, noting the DFC's goal is to create capacity for more than 500 million doses of vaccines "to be produced in Africa for Africa."

"What we're trying to do is help the world close the vaccine manufacturing gap to get shots in arms all around the world," Marchick said.

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

Corrected: October 18, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the U.S. had only shipped 190,000 vaccines to date. In fact, it has shipped 190 million to countries around the world.