The United States has announced plans to share its stock of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines with other countries, amid growing pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration to support global vaccine equity.
The White House said on Monday that as many as 60 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses could be available for export in the coming months but it did not say where exactly those vaccines would be distributed.
“Right now we have zero doses available of AstraZeneca,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who noted that US regulators still need to review the quality of the vaccines already produced.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet authorised AstraZeneca’s vaccine for use in the US, which has recorded the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the world.
“The US’ decision to donate AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines is an important and welcomed step towards increasing equitable access worldwide,” Dr Carrie Teicher, director of programs at MSF-USA, said in a statement.
“Getting these 60 million doses off the shelves and into arms as soon as possible will directly protect 30 million people from contracting COVID-19.
“But this is only one step the US government should take. The US must now transfer all of its surplus vaccine doses – not just those made by AstraZeneca – to COVAX and boost production globally so more vaccines can be manufactured in more places.”
Psaki said as many as 10 million AstraZeneca doses could be cleared for export “in coming weeks”, while about 50 million more doses are being produced and could be shipped in May and June.
The Biden administration is still deciding how it plans to decide where and how it will share those vaccines, she added. “We will consider a range of options from our partner countries and, of course, much of that will be through direct relationships.”
The announcement comes as the US is facing growing pressure to share its COVID-19 vaccines, especially with hard-hit nations such as India, as well as waive US intellectual property rules to allow more countries to manufacture jabs.
In an open letter earlier this month, a group of former world leaders and Nobel prize laureates urged Biden “to exercise solidarity, cooperation and renewed leadership” and waive the vaccine patents.
The US has administered over 230 million jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines so far, while nearly 54 percent of Americans over the age of 18 have received at least one jab, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, DC, said there have been real questions about why the US’s stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines “was just sitting there when other countries, particularly India, right now are in crisis.
“Given the fact that it hasn’t been approved in the United States, it is going to be going through a strict quality control procedure,” Halkett said.
On Sunday, the US announced it would send more support to India, which is battling a surge in COVID-19 infections that has overwhelmed the country’s hospitals and led to a shortage of oxygen and other supplies.
Biden spoke over the phone with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday and pledged to provide “a range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials, and therapeutics”, the White House said in a statement.
While it remains unclear where the US will send its AstraZeneca doses, its neighbours Mexico and Canada have asked the Biden administration to share more doses, while dozens of other countries are looking to access supplies of the vaccine.
According to MSF, just 0.3 percent of global COVID-19 vaccine supply has gone to low-income countries.
The administration’s move to export more vaccines drew praise from non-governmental aid groups, which encouraged the White House to develop plans to share even more doses.
“The Biden administration’s decision to begin sharing AstraZeneca vaccines is welcome news and an important first step towards the US sharing more of its massive vaccine stockpile,” said Tom Hart, the acting CEO at the ONE Campaign.
“The Biden administration should build on this welcome first step and start sharing more vaccines as soon as possible.”