U.S. plan to share Pfizer shots globally ‘too little and too late,’ ex-CDC director says

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that the U.S. was purchasing an additional 500 million Pfizer COVID vaccines to donate to other nations. The move is what critics and organizations like the WHO have been calling for — a much more robust effort on behalf of rich countries. Yet some are saying this still isn’t enough. William Brangham discusses with Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Biden administration today announced a new step to try to ease the massive global inequity around access to lifesaving COVID vaccines. The president announced that the U.S. would purchase an additional 500 million doses from Pfizer and donate it to other nations.

  • President Joe Biden:

    It brings our total commitment of donated vaccines to over 1.1 billion vaccines to be donated.

    Put another way, for every one shot we have administered to date in America, we have now committed to do three shots to the rest of the world. And, as we do so, we should unite around the world on a few principles, that we commit to donating, not selling, donating, not selling doses to low- and lower-income countries, and that those donations come with no political strings attached.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we turn to William Brangham, who has more on this and on several other pandemic developments — William.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    There is so much going on with the pandemic right now, including, dare I say, some actual goons on the horizon. First off, the WHO reported that, last week, the number of COVID cases and deaths had declined from four million to 3.6 million. That's globally.

    Secondly, there have been some positive predictions here. There's a modeling group that works with the CDC. And they're saying that we might see similar declines here in the U.S. throughout the fall and into the winter.

    As you know, deaths have been climbing all summer. There are about 2,000 people in America dying every day from COVID. Their prediction is that we might see a similar dip back down into the hundreds of deaths only by March this winter.

    Now, there's a lot of caveats involved in that, including the fact that we have to get a lot of kids vaccinated, but could be very good news.

    On this vaccine front, you remember, last week, the FDA said that the evidence for booster shots, Pfizer booster shots, for the general population were not recommended, but they did recommend them for 65-year-olds and up and vulnerable populations.

    The CDC is now looking on that and debating how that might roll out. We should hear from them at the end of the week.

    But back to this Biden announcement that we just heard the president from, this is what critics have been saying all along that he needs to be doing, to ramp up — rich nations need to ramp up the spread of these vaccines to poorer nations.

    Even so, some critics are looking at today and saying it's still not enough. For example, just about an hour or so ago, I talked with Thomas Frieden. He used to run the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, and he now runs a group called Resolve to Save Lives. And we talked about this exact issue.

    Dr. Frieden, always good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    President Biden today said that we're not going to get out of this pandemic with what he put it as half-measures or middle-of-the-road ambitions. And then he made this announcement of an enormous purchase of Pfizer doses to donate to the world.

    Does it meet that bar?

  • Dr. Thomas Frieden, Former CDC Director:

    Well, there's a lot to like in the administration's announcements from today, but, unfortunately, it's too little and too late.

    We need a different approach. We're billions of doses short, and the missing link here, William, is Moderna. The United States taxpayers paid for the invention that Moderna is selling. Moderna is a small company. A year ago, it had less than 1,000 employees.

    And yet the safeguarding to have the world is dependent on their technology and Pfizer's scaling up massively, because mRNA vaccines really are our insurance against variants. They are our insurance against production failures. They're our most hopeful way to get the world through this disaster.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm going to get back to the pharmaceutical companies in a second.

    But back to the president. Too little, too late. What else do you want him to be doing?

  • Dr. Thomas Frieden:

    Well, first, give credit where credit is due.

    It's true the U.S. is doing it in hundreds of millions of doses. They're accelerating the schedule. They're, very importantly, also funding the delivery of vaccines, education, administration programs, not just buying the vaccines and dumping them and hoping it'll work out.

    So that's all very important. But the real challenge here is that there are too few doses being produced. And because of that, we're likely to have a real shortage of the most effective vaccines through 2022. And because of that, we will have more risk of dangerous variants, slower recovery of travel and trade, more political instability, and, most importantly, millions of lives lost that could be saved.

  • William Brangham:

    You have in the past already also been very critical of the pharmaceutical companies.

    I'm going to read something you said recently. You said — quote — "People are dying because of the choices of Moderna and Pfizer, their boards and shareholders."

    It is a very serious allegation. I mean, again, what are the things that they could do to speed this effort more?

  • Dr. Thomas Frieden:

    The way it works, really, is that governments do a lot to make things possible for pharmaceutical companies that sell vaccines. They do the science. They buy the vaccines. They indemnify them against legal challenge. They educate doctors and patients. They buy the vaccines at high cost, in the case of the U.S.

    And what many vaccine manufacturing companies do, but not these two, what many do is understand that they have a responsibility. And that responsibility includes technology transfer when they cannot meet global need immediately.

    I think what has to happen is a combination of legal pressure, support incentives, and ensuring that they transfer technology to entities that are able to scale up production of their vaccine much faster than is currently being scaled up.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, the companies, in their defense, argue, we're making vaccine as fast as we can. We didn't decide who we sold them to. We sold them to the first buyers that came, and those were the Western nations, and that, on some level, that these criticisms are unfair.

  • Dr. Thomas Frieden:

    Well, it is true that these companies have done a great job making a great vaccine and scaling up within their capacities.

    The problem is, we can't be held hostage to two companies and what they can do and the one-off deals they can make with other companies. In truth, both the companies and the Biden administration are doing a lot. But what's needed — and what's needed is not easy. It's hard.

    It means forcing the companies to do something they don't want to do. It means threatening legal action. It means sending people who know about production to the factories. It means finding willing partners.

    But you know something? The stability of the world depends on it.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, and now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, always good to see you. Thank you.

  • Dr. Thomas Frieden:

    Thank you.

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