While world suffers, Biden lets millions of vaccine doses expire

The United States has hundreds of millions of extra doses of Covid vaccine, and we seem to have reached the point where nearly everyone willing to be vaccinated has been, so it’s a no-brainer that we should share our extra vaccine with the rest of the world. Beyond the direct human toll of the pandemic, it is breeding variants and there’s a possibility that it might breed a variant that our mRNA vaccines won’t protect against.

Basically everyone agrees with this. So why does the Biden administration seem to be unable to do it? We have millions of doses expiring right now:

Millions of J&J Covid-19 Vaccines Are at Risk of Expiring in June

Hospitals, state health departments and the federal government are racing to decide how to use up millions of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine doses that are set to expire this month. The prospect of so many doses going to waste in the U.S. when developing nations are desperate for shots would add pressure on the Biden administration to share stockpiled vaccines.

Instead of just putting the vaccine on planes and shipping it out somewhere — anywhere! — the administration spent weeks dithering about a plan for who should get our excess vaccine and how. And then once they announced the plan that they had worked so hard on, the plan was to give most of the vaccine to COVAX (a branch of the WHO, a UN agency), and let them decide. It took weeks to decide to let someone else decide.

On June 3, we finally saw this optimistic headline, from NPR:

The White House Says It Has Started Shipping Surplus COVID-19 Vaccines Abroad

Alas, the article didn’t really back up the headline:

The United States will send its first shipments of surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses abroad on Thursday [June 3], spelling out for the first time how it will share its wealth of vaccines with parts of the world struggling to get shots in arms. . .

“We expect a regular cadence of shipments around the world across the next several weeks. And in the weeks ahead, working with the world’s democracies we will coordinate a multilateral effort, including the G-7, to combat and end the pandemic,” [White House Covid coordinator] Zients said.

It seems that NPR’s headline writer looked at the calendar, saw that it was the day the Biden administration had promised to start shipping out vaccine, and assumed it must have happened. There’s no reporting in the story to suggest that it actually did.

I’ve been watching all month, looking for any news to suggest that any actual vaccine shipments had taken place. Finally, this week, there was some news:

1.5 Million COVID-19 Vaccine Doses Delivered To Honduras Via COVAX

A fleet of refrigerated trucks emblazoned with the flag of Honduras lined up to receive an air shipment of 1.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines at Armando Escalón Espinal Air Base, San Pedro Sula Airport, Honduras on June 27, 2021.

(Oddly, the story doesn’t actually say that the vaccine arrived and was loaded onto those trucks, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.)

Did shipments begin earlier, and I just missed them? I don’t think so. This story says a shipment to Peru at about the same time was the first:

U.S. Ships First Coronavirus Vaccines Abroad, Donating 2 Million to Peru

The United States will begin shipping its first doses of the coronavirus vaccine to other countries on Monday [June 28].

The story does appear to be a little bit wrong, as the Honduras shipment appears to have been one day earlier, but that’s a minor error. Clearly, Honduras and Peru are part of the same effort, which US News says was the first.

So what about about those millions of J&J doses that expire (optimistically) today? Those aren’t the doses we sent Honduras and Peru; we sent them Pfizer and Moderna. We appear to be letting all those doses expire.

Moreover, we have a lot more excess vaccine that isn’t about to expire, but we aren’t going to use. (Notably, 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine which isn’t approved in the US.) We may get all that shipped out eventually, but people are dying right now. We already missed the opportunity to help India when they badly needed it.

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