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When the United States brought world leaders together last year to discuss how to end the pandemic, President Biden emphasized the historic scale of the problem. “This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis,” Biden said at the event, dubbed the Global COVID-19 Summit: Ending the Pandemic and Building Back Better and timed to coincide with the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
But on Thursday, as the United States co-hosts a second covid-19 summit designed to further the fight against the pandemic with funding for vaccines and more, this batten-the-hatches battle appears already forgotten.
A brutal war in Ukraine has pushed the coronavirus from front pages, and many Americans are more interested in the rate of inflation than the rate of infection. The United States, like many countries in Europe, has lifted many of its remaining pandemic restrictions as vaccination helped lower rates of hospitalization.
The pandemic may be far from over, however. The global number of new cases is far lower than it was during the omicron wave over the winter, but it remains as high as it was at most points during the preceding two years. Even that may be a gross undercount, as experts told the Associated Press recently that the testing dropped by 70 percent to 90 percent worldwide from the first to the second quarter of this year.
Even countries that had once been able to limit the spread of the virus — such as former epicenter China with its “zero covid” policy — are struggling to cope with waves of cases.
This week’s vaccine summit hopes to beat back this current global apathy. “The pandemic is not over, and now is the time to prepare for the next one,” the White House said in a fact sheet sent to reporters, adding that fighting covid-19 “must remain an international priority.”
“This is the moment to intensify efforts, not to ease off,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other global health leaders said in their own Tuesday statement.
But there are signs everywhere of how momentum has been lost. Last year, the White House and the WHO announced that countries should be aiming for 70 percent vaccination rate. It was always an ambitious target. Now, it looks impossible.
While almost 70 percent of the world has received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, these doses have been shared unevenly. According to tracking from Our World in Data at Oxford University, at least 125 countries haven’t reached the 70 percent threshold yet. Thirty-nine countries are yet to hit 20 percent — with almost all of those classified as low income by the World Bank.
Covax, the global effort to ensure vaccine doses go to poorer nations, struggled even when attention was on the pandemic. Now, its backers say the chief problem is no longer supply but demand, as well as issues with delivery.
Money, as ever, remains a big issue. And it may now be even more in short supply. Even the United States, co-host of the summit, looks set to be coming to the table empty-handed.
The Biden administration asked Congress to authorize $22.5 billion in additional pandemic assistance, including $5 billion for global effort, in March. But the money has become the subject of bitter fighting between Democrats and Republicans. So far, it hasn’t arrived.
Biden this week asked for pandemic funding to be stripped out of a bill that sought to provide more assistance for Ukraine, writing in a letter that “we cannot allow our shipments of assistance to stop while we await further Congressional action.” The House passed the bill Tuesday.
Its price tag? Almost $40 billion in aid to Ukraine — more than Biden had actually asked for.
In a statement released Wednesday, Michele Heisler, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights, called it “both shameful and imprudent that the United States is coming to this summit with no additional funds committed to support the global COVID-19 vaccine roll out.”
Much of that blame may lie with Congress, though there are concerns about the Biden administration’s commitment, too. Politico reported this week that the U.S. president may only make a prerecorded statement at the summit, rather than a live appearance at the virtual meeting, co-hosted with Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal.
The United States may not be the only one hesitating when it comes to funding covid responses either. Many nations are struggling with new economic problems, while the Ukraine war also comes with a huge bill attached and presents new complications for a unified global response to the pandemic.
Advocates argue that it makes financial sense to invest in fighting the pandemic now. In fact, it’s not just a good return on investment — it’s a bargain, considering we now know just how devastating covid and other pandemics can be.
Last week, the WHO released a new estimate that suggested that the pandemic led to nearly 15 million excess deaths worldwide, far higher than the official death toll of just over 6 million. It’s a huge number — and one that’s still lower than other estimates finding the number of excess deaths hitting as high as 25 million.
Many of these deaths occurred in lower-income countries, suggesting that the global health measures being debated Thursday could have a significant impact. Eighty-five percent of all excess deaths occurred in developing nations, Philip Schellekens of the World Bank noted last week, despite the fact that these countries have younger populations that should be less susceptible to serious illness.
Many in the global health world had hoped that covid-19 would be a wake-up call for future pandemics, which could feature a virus that spreads easier than covid-19 or is more deadly — or both. Ambitions for restructuring the way the institutionally toothless WHO operates, a treaty that would compel countries to work more closely together during outbreaks, and even a loosening of global intellectual property laws have all been debated at high levels.
“The West’s response to the war in Ukraine shows that governments can work together and act decisively in the face of traditional security challenges, but we’ve yet to see that same urgency and collaboration applied to modern global threats like the pandemic, climate change or commodity price shocks,” said Gayle Smith, chief executive of the ONE Campaign, a nonprofit that campaigns to end extreme poverty and preventable disease.
And in the past, attention to the risks of a pandemic has been fleeting. The Clinton administration focused on the risks of a pandemic or other global health disaster in the United States, but the issue was soon overshadowed by the “war on terror.” The Trump administration later dissolved the pandemic preparedness mechanisms in place.
This time, many worry that the impact will be felt even sooner: With another variant that makes people sit up and take notice, once again.