by Maria Cheng and Chris Megarian | The Associated Press
LONDON – In the latest Senate package targeted to contain the coronavirus, US lawmakers have abandoned almost all funding to curb the virus beyond US borders, a move many health experts slammed as dangerously short-sighted.
They warn that suspending COVID-19 aid for poor countries could eventually allow the uncontrolled transmission needed for the next worrying edition and highlight the progress made so far.
The US has been the largest contributor to the global pandemic response, distributing more than 500 million vaccines, and a lack of funding will be a major blow. The money has paid for a number of interventions, including a massive vaccination campaign in Cameroon’s capital, in which hundreds of thousands of people got their first doses, as well as the construction of a COVID-19 care facility in South Africa and 1,000 Donations of ventilators are also included. to that country.
Other US-funded vaccination campaigns in dozens of countries, including Uganda, Zambia, Ivory Coast and Mali, could also come to a halt.
“Any stagnation of funding will affect us,” said Misaki Waengera, a Ugandan official who heads a technical committee advising the government on its response to the pandemic. He said Uganda is heavily dependent on donor aid – it has received more than 11 million vaccines from the US – and that any cuts would “make it very difficult for us to make ends meet.”
“It’s a kick in the teeth of poor countries, which were promised billions of vaccines and resources last year in the grand promises made by the G7 and G20 last year,” said Michael Head, Global Health Research Fellow at the University of Southampton, UK.
“Given how badly we have failed in vaccine equity, it is clear that all those promises have now been broken,” he said, adding that in the coming months, with concerted efforts and funding to fight COVID-19, Without it, the epidemic could last for years.
While about 66% of the US population is fully immunized against the coronavirus, less than 15% of people in poor countries have received a single dose. Health officials working on COVID-19 vaccination in developing countries backed by the US say they expect progress to be reversed after funding disappears.
“In some countries, vaccination will stop or even start,” said Rachel Hall, executive director of US Government Advocacy at Charity Care. He cited estimates by USAID that suspended funding would mean the end of testing, treatment and health services for about 100 million people.
Although vaccines are more plentiful this year, many poor countries have struggled to obtain weapons and hundreds of millions of donated vaccines are either expired, returned or unused. To address those logistical barriers, US 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 US embassy in Cameroon’s capital set up a tent for mass vaccination: within the first five days, more than 300,000 people received a single dose. Such events would now be difficult to organize without US funds.
Hall also said COVID-19 would have far greater consequences, adding that countries battling many disease outbreaks, such as Congo and Mali, would be faced with difficult choices.
“They have to choose between fighting Ebola, malaria, polio, COVID and more,” she said.
Jeff Ziants, the outgoing leader of the White House COVID-19 Task Force, expressed regret that the legislation does not include resources to fight the international pandemic, noting that it would compromise efforts to track the virus’s genetic evolution.
“It is a real disappointment that there is no global funding in this bill,” he said. “This virus knows no bounds, and it is in our national interest to vaccinate the world and protect it from potential new forms.”
Still, Ziants announced that the US would be the first to donate “tens of millions” of doses for children to poor countries, and said that more than 20 countries had already requested the shots.
Director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, J. Stephen Morrison lamented that lawmakers were erring on the side of optimism about the pandemic at exactly the time another surge could occur.
“We have made that mistake many times in this pandemic. And we can make that mistake again,” he said. In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases caused by the highly infectious Omicron subvariant BA.2 have surged across Europe, and US officials say they expect a US spike soon.
Other experts are concerned that the suspension of US global support for COVID-19 could prompt officials to abandon current vaccination targets. The World Health Organization had set a target of immunizing at least 70% of all countries by the middle of this year, but with nearly 50 countries vaccinating less than 20% of their populations, achieving that goal is very likely. is less.
Instead, some organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Duke University have pushed for officials to “move away vaccination targets from 70% of all adults vaccinated by summer to 90% of all adults at highest risk in each country”, Some critics say there 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 US, officials dismissed suggestions that their coronavirus programs would suffer as a result of lost funding. The Nigerian president’s office said help from the US was mostly “in kind” through capacity building, research assistance and donations of laboratory equipment and vaccines. “We are confident that this will not cause any disruption to our current programmes,” it said.
Others, however, warned that the US decision set an unfortunate precedent for global cooperation to end the pandemic at a time when fresh concerns such as the Ukraine war are gaining more attention.
US President Joe Biden had originally planned to hold a virtual summit in the first quarter of this year to keep international efforts on track, but no schedule has been set.
A senior Biden administration official said: “In light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, we do not yet have an end date for the summit, but we are working closely with countries and international partners to advance commitments.” ” publically.
As of this month, the WHO said it had received only $1.8 billion from donors out of the $16.8 billion needed to accelerate access to coronavirus vaccines, drugs and diagnostics.
Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, director of Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center, said: “There is no further action being taken at this time and the US decision to suspend funding should inspire other donor countries to take similar action.” could.”
Kerry Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, described the US suspension of funding as “devastating.”
“How could this possibly be what we’re debating right now?” He asked. “It is a moral obligation for the rest of the world to continue to contribute to this global pandemic response, not only to protect ourselves but to protect people around the world.”
Megarian reported from Washington. AP writer Rodney Muhumuja in Kampala, Uganda; Mogomotsi Magom and Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg and Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.