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Biden marks Covid ‘tragic milestone’ in US at global summit

The American flag flies at half-mast at the White House (Susan Walsh/AP)
The American flag flies at half-mast at the White House (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Joe Biden appealed to world leaders at a Covid-19 summit on Thursday to re-energise a lagging international commitment to attacking the virus as he led the US in marking the “tragic milestone” of one million deaths in the United States.

He ordered flags lowered to half-mast and warned against complacency around the globe.

“This pandemic isn’t over,” Mr Biden declared at the second global pandemic summit. He spoke solemnly of the once-unthinkable US toll: “One million empty chairs around the family dinner table.”

The coronavirus has killed more than 999,000 people in the US and at least 6.2 million people globally since it emerged in late 2019, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Other counts, including by the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association, have the toll at one million.

“Today, we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States, one million Covid deaths,” he said.

The president called on Congress to urgently provide billions of dollars more for testing, vaccines and treatments, something legislators have been unwilling to deliver so far.

That lack of funding — Mr Biden has requested an additional 22.5 billion dollars in what he calls critically needed money — is a US reflection of faltering resolve that jeopardises the global response to the pandemic, he says.

Eight months after he used the first Covid summit to announce an ambitious pledge to donate 1.2 billion vaccine doses to the world, the urgency of the US and other nations to respond has waned.

Momentum on vaccinations and treatments has faded even as more infectious variants rise and billions of people across the globe remain unprotected.

Mr Biden addressed the opening of the virtual summit with recorded remarks and made the case that tackling Covid-19 “must remain an international priority”.

The US is co-hosting the summit along with Germany, Indonesia, Senegal and Belize.

“This summit is an opportunity to renew our efforts to keep our foot on the gas when it comes to getting this pandemic under control and preventing future health crises,” Mr Biden said.

The US has shipped nearly 540 million vaccine doses to more than 110 countries and territories, according to the State Department.

The leaders announced about three billion dollars in new commitments to fight the virus, along with a host of new programmes meant to boost access to vaccines and treatments around the world. But that was a far more modest outcome than at last year’s meeting.

After the delivery of more than one billion vaccines to the developing world, the problem is no longer a lack of shots but of logistical support to get doses into arms.

According to government data, more than 680 million donated vaccine doses have been left unused in developing countries because they were expiring and could not be administered quickly enough.

As of March, 32 poorer countries had used less than half of the Covid-19 vaccines they were sent.

US assistance to promote and facilitate vaccinations overseas dried up earlier this year, and Mr Biden has requested about five billion dollars for the effort through the rest of the year.

“We have tens of millions of unclaimed doses because countries lack the resources to build out their cold chains, which basically is the refrigeration systems, to fight disinformation and to hire vaccinators,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week.

She added that the summit was “going to be an opportunity to elevate the fact that we need additional funding to continue to be a part of this effort around the world”.

“We’re going to continue to fight for more funding here,” Ms Psaki said. “But we will continue to press other countries to do more to help the world make progress as well.”

Demand for Covid-19 vaccines has dropped in some countries as infections and deaths have declined globally in recent months, particularly as the Omicron variant has proved to be less severe than earlier versions of the disease.

For the first time since it was created, the UN-backed Covax effort has “enough supply to enable countries to meet their national vaccination targets,” according to Dr Seth Berkley, chief executive of the vaccines alliance Gavi, which fronts Covax.

However, despite more than 65% of the world’s population receiving at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, less than 16% of people in poor countries have been immunised.

It is highly unlikely countries will hit the World Health Organisation target of vaccinating 70% of all people by June.

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