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Pressure For COVID-19 Vaccine Diplomacy In The Global Race Against Time And Variants

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Biden has been celebrating the quickening pace of vaccinations in the U.S., and it won't be long before there are more than enough doses for every adult in America. Now the Biden administration has taken its first steps to share extra vaccines with other countries. Advocates say vaccine diplomacy could benefit both global health and the U.S.' standing in the world. Here's NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Early on, the Biden administration said it would contribute $4 billion to COVAX, the global effort to vaccinate people in poor countries. But when it comes to vaccine doses themselves, the White House has had an America-first approach. Here was President Biden earlier this month.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we're then going to try to help the rest of the world.

KEITH: Last week, when the White House announced plans to loan millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Canada and Mexico, COVID response coordinator Jeff Zients was careful to emphasize.

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JEFF ZIENTS: No American will be without a vaccine because of this action.

KEITH: The fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine isn't yet authorized for use in the U.S. but is in Canada and Mexico smoothed over any potential domestic political backlash. And even as Biden said Americans need to come first, he has begun arguing the U.S. has an interest in vaccines getting to its neighbors and the rest of the world.

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BIDEN: This is not something that can be stopped by a fence no matter how high you build a fence or a wall. So we're not going to be ultimately safe until the world is safe.

KEITH: Before getting further into global vaccine sharing, press secretary Jen Psaki says the administration is focused on figuring out which vaccines work best against virus variants and which ones work best on children. But Carolyn Reynolds, co-founder of the Pandemic Action Network, says the U.S. has contracts for hundreds of millions more doses than it will need to vaccinate all Americans. And time is of the essence because virus variants could undermine the vaccines.

CAROLYN REYNOLDS: The faster that they are allowed to evolve, the longer it's going to take us to get out of this crisis. So it is in our national interest to be able to get the vaccine out there more widely around the world as soon as possible.

KEITH: Reynolds says the U.S. needs to do more than contribute money to the global effort. She says the best way to help is to contribute doses to COVAX rather than do a bunch of bilateral deals like the ones with Mexico and Canada.

REYNOLDS: We're not going to end this pandemic solving it country by country, region by region. It's really got to be a global response.

KEITH: There's an active debate about the best way for the U.S. to show global leadership on vaccines. Russia and China have made a show of distributing their vaccines to countries in need, in part to exert global influence. Amanda Glassman at the Center for Global Development thinks some bilateral vaccine deals would be good for the U.S. She recently spoke to a colleague in Senegal whose mother got a Chinese vaccine.

AMANDA GLASSMAN: Now, it's not a competition. But I would love to see our country, the United States, be in that same place and having those same kinds of conversations and being the source of something so important that someone can say that their grandmother was vaccinated yesterday. That matters to people.

KEITH: Psaki said at today's briefing that U.S. vaccine sharing likely will include a mix of bilateral agreements and contributions to COVAX. Global health advocates just want the U.S. to hurry up and announce its plans.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.