Although vaccines are more plentiful this year, many poorer countries have struggled to get shots into arms and hundreds of millions of donated vaccines have either expired, been returned or sat unused. To address those logistical hurdles, U.S. aid has financed critical services in countries across Africa, including the safe delivery of vaccines, training health workers and fighting vaccine misinformation.
For example, in November the U.S. Embassy in the Cameroonian capital set up a tent for mass vaccination: Within the first five days, more than 300,000 people received a dose. Those kinds of events will now be harder to conduct without American funds.
Hall also noted there would be consequences far beyond COVID-19, saying countries struggling with multiple disease outbreaks, like Congo and Mali, would face difficult choices.
“They will have to choose between fighting Ebola, malaria, polio, COVID and more,” she said.
Jeff Zients, the outgoing leader of the White House COVID-19 task force, expressed regret the legislation doesn’t include resources for the international pandemic fight, noting that would also compromise efforts to track the virus’ genetic evolution.
“It is a real disappointment that there’s no global funding in this bill,” he said. “This virus knows no borders, and it’s in our national interest to vaccinate the world and protect against possible new variants.”
Still, Zients announced the U.S. would be the first to donate “tens of millions” of doses for children to poorer countries and said more than 20 nations had already requested the shots.
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, lamented that lawmakers were erring on the side of optimism about the pandemic precisely when another surge might be arriving.
“We’ve made that mistake several times in this pandemic. And we may be making that mistake again,” he said. In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases caused by the hugely infectious omicron subvariant BA.2 have surged across Europe, and American officials say they expect a U.S. spike soon.
Other experts worried the suspension of U.S. global support for COVID-19 might prompt officials to drop current vaccination goals. The World Health Organization had set a target of immunizing at least 70% of people in all countries by the middle of this year, but with nearly 50 countries vaccinating fewer than 20% of their populations, hitting that target is highly unlikely.
Instead, some organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation and Duke University have pushed for officials to “refocus vaccination goals away from vaccinating 70% of all adults by summer to vaccinating 90% of those most at-risk in each country,” in what some critics say is an implicit acknowledgment of the world’s repeated failures to share vaccines fairly.
In Nigeria, which has so far received at least $143 million in COVID-19 aid from the U.S, authorities dismissed suggestions their coronavirus programs would suffer as a result of lost funding. The Nigerian president’s office said help from the U.S. was mostly “in kind” via capacity building, research support and donations of laboratory equipment and vaccines. “We are confident that this will not cause any disruption of our current programs,” it said.
However, others warned the U.S. decision set an unfortunate precedent for global cooperation to end the pandemic at a time when fresh concerns like the Ukraine war are drawing more attention.
U.S. President Joe Biden originally planned to convene a virtual summit in the first quarter of this year to keep international efforts on track, but no event has been scheduled.
“In light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, we don’t yet have a final date for the summit, but we are working closely with countries and international partners to advance commitments,” said a senior Biden administration official who was not authorized to comment publicly.
As of this month, WHO said it had gotten only $1.8 billion of the $16.8 billion needed from donors to speed access to coronavirus vaccines, medicines and diagnostics.
“Nobody else is stepping up to fill the void at the moment and the U.S. decision to suspend funding may lead other donor countries to act similarly,” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, director of Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center.
Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, described the U.S. suspension of funding as “devastating.”
“How could this possibly be what we’re debating right now?” she asked. “It’s a moral obligation to the rest of the world to continue to contribute to this global pandemic response, not only to protect ourselves but to protect people from around the world.”