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Biden to pledge more vaccine doses to boost global inoculation rates

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during an event with the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building March 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. (by Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The United States will double the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses it is donating to the global inoculation effort, President Joe Biden plans to announce Wednesday.

The commitment will bring to more than 1 billion the total number of doses the U.S. has pledged to other countries in hopes of bringing the pandemic to a close and preventing dangerous variants from emerging.

The highly contagious delta variant, which was first detected in India, has underscored the danger of uncontrolled spread, ripping through unvaccinated communities and causing another surge in deaths.

Increasing international vaccine distribution is “the only way to defeat COVID-19 and protect the American people and grow the American economy,” said a senior administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the announcement before it becomes official.

The president is scheduled to unveil the assistance during a virtual summit on the pandemic that’s being convened during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Biden has already pledged more than 500 million doses, with 160 million shipped so far. The next 500 million doses will be manufactured in the U.S. and distribution is scheduled to begin in January, the senior administration official said.

The vaccines are being provided “free of charge, no strings attached,” the official said.

The U.S. has also been under pressure to contribute more vaccine to other countries, especially as administration officials prepare to make booster shots available this year — meaning some Americans will probably receive three doses when many people in poor countries haven’t received one.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday that the uneven vaccination distribution is “a moral indictment of the state of our world.” More than 70 percent of the 5.7 billion vaccine doses administrated globally have gone to just 10 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Dr. William Parker, a medical ethicist and assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Chicago, said shipping doses overseas “would do far more good” in terms of saving lives.

A panel that advises the Food and Drug Administration last week rejected a plan that would have made booster shots of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine available to most Americans, in part because it was unclear how the third dose would substantially contribute to controlling the pandemic. The panel backed giving extra shots to those over the age of 65 or who are immunocompromised.

Giving a healthy adult a booster to “prevent cold, mild or asymptomatic infections at the expense of costing someone in a low-income country their life to me seems unethical,” Parker said.

Officials defended the administration’s plans, saying the country will be donating three doses to other countries for each one administered to a patient in the United States.

In his speech Tuesday to the U.N. — his first as president — Biden described the pandemic as a collective challenge.

“We’re mourning more than 4.5 million people, people of every nation, from every background,” he said. “Each death is an individual heartbreak, but our shared grief is a poignant reminder that our collective future will hinge on our ability to recognize our common humanity and to act together.”

Dr. Walter A. Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, said producing enough vaccines will be challenging.

“Manufacturing capacity has generally been adequate for the vaccines we routinely use,” Orenstein said, because not every person in the world has needed to be inoculated against every disease. But now, the whole world needs this vaccine, and manufacturing capacity is not able to meet this demand, he said.

“It’s not like overnight you can just rev up and vaccinate the entire world,” he said. The industry has never had to produce “anywhere near the number of doses we need” to combat COVID-19, he said.