Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Mary Beth Goodman, Acting Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security at the U.S. Department of State.
Coordinator Goodman will discuss the Global Action Plan and commitments made by the United States, international organization representatives, and foreign ministers to end the pandemic in 2022 and strengthen global health security. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Acting Coordinator Goodman, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have.
As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Acting Coordinator Goodman for her opening remarks.
Ms. Goodman: Thank you so much, and hello to everyone who’s joining the call today. I am excited to share some of the updates on the work that we’ve been doing on the international response to COVID-19, and happy to take some of your questions.
Let me just frame at the very top the meeting that we held yesterday at the Department of State. President Biden has obviously sent a very strong message that the U.S. wants to be a leader on responding to the global COVID pandemic. Secretary Blinken is very focused on following through on this agenda to help end the acute phase of this pandemic – not just here in the U.S., but around the world as well.
To date, the United States has donated over 435 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to more than 110 countries and economies worldwide. We’re well on our way to meeting President Biden’s commitment of sharing 1.2 billion doses with the world by the end of this year. We’ve also contributed more than $19 billion in health and humanitarian assistance to help combat COVID-19 issues and to help ensure communities around the world have the resources that they need.
Secretary Blinken has been very focused, as I said, and he has said to us time and time again, there’s no way that the U.S. can do this alone. There is no one country that can beat this pandemic, and it is going to take a significant amount of coordinated action to help break this pandemic cycle.
So Secretary Blinken convened a virtual meeting yesterday with foreign ministers and leaders of regional organizations, and also with the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros. The partners in this meeting committed to play a lead coordinating role on what we’re calling the COVID-19 Global Action Plan for Enhanced Engagement, otherwise known as the GAP. And this GAP plan has six lines of effort that we believe will help accelerate action on a global scale. These are lines of effort that have been universally accepted by the organizations who are at the heart of responding to this pandemic. And as Secretary Blinken has said, we need more action, less talk. So it’s time to get to work on addressing some of these acute needs.
So the six lines of effort include, number one, to get shots in arms. We know that there are challenges countries are facing, particularly on the African continent, with doses that land at airport tarmacs from all of the many countries that are sending donations, and taking those doses and turning them into vaccines going into arms. So looking at the concrete efforts that need to come together like the pieces of a puzzle, if you will, that are going to help us really address these challenges, whether it’s cold-chain storage, whether it’s ensuring that all of the other essential components for the vaccines are also arriving and being utilized in concert with the doses. So the vaccines, the needles, the syringes, all of the pieces that have to come together so that we truly get shots in arms.
The second line of effort is bolstering supply chain resilience, and by this we mean the essential medical products that are needed to ensure a steady state of supply for the pandemic. So again, the syringes, the needles, the high-quality PPE, and all of the essential things that we need to have continuing to flow not just from one particular source, but to be able to make sure that if a country goes offline because of an outbreak from the pandemic, that we have a ready, steady state of supply that we can pull upon to address the needs and continue to get these vaccines in arms.
The third line of effort is to address information gaps, and this is really critical because there hasn’t always been a ready supply of vaccines in some countries. But now that we do have sufficient global supply of the vaccines for the COVID deliveries that are starting to happen, there needs to be some quality messaging to help countries address the need to have their citizens get vaccinated and the importance, the public service type of messaging that is critical for citizens to know that they need to get this vaccine. Another component in this line of effort is to address the misinformation that is so prevalent around the vaccines and which is causing some vaccine hesitancy and a lack of confidence in some places. We see this here in the United States as well, and it indeed has become a global issue.
The fourth line of effort is to support health care workers, and we know that far too many of our health care workers and frontline medical workers have suffered egregiously in this pandemic. That has happened to just virtually every country in the world. So what do we need to do, particularly as we’re entering the third year of this pandemic and they’re so exhausted but providing such vital care for so many? What do we need to do to better support our health care workers to ensure that they have access to the vaccine themselves in all countries, that they have the supplies they need, but also that they have the training and the support to really help them continue to do this lifesaving work?
The fifth line of effort is focused on testing and treatment and making sure that we have the non-vaccine interventions that are needed in this acute phase of the pandemic. So as more products are being developed, as more technologies are coming on board with the treatments for therapeutics and diagnostics, antivirals – all of these components are very much about the lifesaving measures that we need to deploy now on a global scale.
The sixth line of effort is to strengthen the global health security architecture, and there are many things that are already in the works through various international organizations and discussions about how we take advantage of the urgency of the now to also prepare for the next future pandemic or the next global health security issue that we may face. So while we have to strengthen our international institutions to be able to be more responsive, we also need to build back better to ensure that they will be fit to help us all address another health emergency that may come on board in the future.
So each of these lines of effort were presented to the countries who participated in the meeting yesterday. We had commitments from various countries to take a coordinating role in helping to lead some of this effort at a global scale. And so we will be working with all of our partners to help expand some of the work, to help address some of the acute needs, but really to have better donor coordination so that we are making sure that we are able to work in all of these countries to help them meet the acute needs in this phase of the pandemic. Every country has had a different wave of Omicron hit them harder than some of the others, and so this is really about how do we do more to save lives now and to ensure that we are providing the resources in a more equitable and easy way for all countries to be able to address this pandemic.
Part of the effort now will be focused on implementation and how we now coordinate and work with other countries that are going to be involved in this effort, but also how do we coordinate and work with the international organizations that are so vital to supplying some of this effort on the ground in many of these countries.
So as we continue to do this work, I hope that you will stay engaged and help us continue to track the progress. We still very much believe that it is important to try and have 70 percent of the population of each country vaccinated this year. It is when we hit those large, higher levels of vaccination rates that the world is truly going to be able to move on from this COVID pandemic. And I know it’s very frustrating – we’re all tired of these measures, these restrictions, wearing the mask and really just life in the pandemic. But it is vitally important that we continue to have global cooperation, global coordination, and that we all do more; we all need to put more skin in the game, each and every country, in order to be able to really address the urgency of the critical issues that we have with COVID.
There has been very little that has proven to be a certainty in this pandemic, because this is a very smart virus, and it has surprised us time and time again with numerous variants that have circled the world. I think the one thing that we have realized with certainty is that this virus is going to continue to evolve, that we’re going to continue to see new variants as it evolves, that many countries are unfortunately not as prepared as they need to be to handle the urgency of the crisis, and that as these variants evolve, we’re going to have an impact on all our economies around the world.
So that is why we are really trying to make sure that we are doing what we can to end this acute phase of the pandemic so that the world can get back to life as we knew it perhaps before COVID-19, but also so that we’re saving as many lives as possible to make sure that we do our part here.
Thank you very much. I look forward to some of your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Acting Coordinator Goodman. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question — we’ll go to a question that came to us via email. The question is from Maggie Fick of Thomson Reuters out of Kenya. “We at Reuters last week reported that the EU and Gates Foundation will this week announce a package of support for the AU’s nascent drug regulator, the AMA. Is the U.S. Government considering such support as well?”
Ms. Goodman: That’s a great question, Maggie, and thank you. I think that we are just as excited to see some of the announcements that are coming out of the upcoming summit of the European Union and the African Union, as many of the reporters probably are on this call. I know that this is happening at the leader level. It’s coming up February — I believe the 17th to 19th — and it’s really an opportunity to see what the cooperation will be and how some of the countries are making commitments not just on the EU side, but also on the African Union side.
So I don’t have any information to share with you about the impact of what the potential announcement will be. We are waiting on clarity on this as well, and it is something – the production and some of these issues are something that we continue to have discussions with many countries around the world about. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go live to a question from our participating journalists. The question goes to Simon Ateba of Today News Africa. Mr. Ateba, you may ask your question.
Question: Thank you for doing this and thank you for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington. President Biden has been highlighting vaccine donations to African nations and around the world, and as you said, a few at the top – nearly 435 million doses of COVID-19 have been donated to more than 110 countries. I was just wondering, of the $19 billion that the U.S. has spent in health and humanitarian assistance, how much of that money has gone to the fight against misinformation? For instance, to small media houses in terms of grants and things like that. Thank you.
Ms. Goodman: Thanks for that question, Simon. The answer is I don’t know, and I’m happy to say I don’t know because we have not – it is not something I’ve tracked yet. But we can take a look at this. I know for a fact that looking at the question of misinformation and the question of disinformation is high on our list of some of the work that the U.S. wants to do under this Global Action Plan, along with some of the other partner countries who also committed to act in this area.
So I’m sorry I don’t have an answer for you on the amount of money that has been spent going to media houses in Africa, but it is an issue that we are looking very seriously at because we think it is a hindrance to some of the African citizens actually being willing to take the vaccine and having the opportunity to really be protected against this virus. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to our Q&A for an interesting question from Ibrahim N’diaye. Her question from the Mali Tribune newspaper: “In Mali, people are not afraid of this pandemic in view of the demonstrations, the non-wearing of masks, and the non-respect of barrier measures.” Assuming he means social distancing. “However, the contamination rate is still low. How can this paradox be explained?”
Ms. Goodman: Thank you very much, Ibrahima, for the question. I actually lived in Mali for two years very early in my career, so Mali has a soft spot in my heart.
I think that one of the challenges we’ve always faced in this pandemic from the very start is the lack of testing that has been available in many countries. So we truly don’t know the infection rates at a global level, but that has particularly been true through some of the data that we’ve seen through the African CDC and other AU sources in particular where the testing is just simply not available so that we have the accuracy of the infection rates. That, coupled with the idea that many citizens may actually have a milder case and not have the severe infections that we saw very early on with the Delta variant. We do know that the Omicron variant has a lower efficacy, if you will, or a lower symptomatic impact that some people experience.
So I think it’s a lack of true information, but also the fact that we frankly just don’t know the real impact that this may be having in various countries. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to another question sent in to us, and this one is from Ms. Monalisa Freiha of Annahar Media Group out of Lebanon. Her question is: “It is well known that the world won’t be safe before at least 70% of the population is vaccinated. What is the role of the U.S. in reaching this target? And is the U.S. planning any additional vaccines to Lebanon?”
Ms. Goodman: It’s a great question. I’ll start with your second part of that question first, if I may. We are constantly evaluating the countries that still need vaccines and constantly receiving requests from countries for additional donations. So, I don’t have anything to announce today about specific donations that may be going to Lebanon, but we’re certainly tracking the need for more donations there as well in other countries around the world so we can respond to requests and to needs on the ground as they continue to evolve.
The U.S. has been a global leader, as I noted, on the pandemic response, and we have donated a significant number of vaccines with many more scheduled to be shipped during the course of 2022. President Biden set a goal of the U.S. donating 1.2 billion doses of the vaccines to the world. Most of those vaccines are being shipped through COVAX, which is the new global coordinating mechanism to ensure that vaccines get to the countries that are most in need and help address some of the equity issues around where the vaccines are being sent. So the majority of our vaccine donations do go through that mechanism and we’re very happy to continue supporting COVAX in these critical efforts.
We have done some bilateral donations of vaccines as well. One of the donations that Secretary Blinken recently announced was yesterday, with an announcement of 5 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine being donated through AVAT, which is the African Vaccine Accelerator Tool, at the request of the AU. So those doses are being allocated directly by AVAT to countries across the continent, and so we are trying to engage as much as we can with these organizations to ensure that the vaccines are getting distributed on an equitable basis, but also to the countries that are in dire need. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to another question sent in to us, and this one is from Nigeria, from Channels TV, from Mr. Paul Nwachukwu. The question is: “What’s the plan to help local manufacturing of vaccines in Africa?
Ms. Goodman: That’s a great question, and we’ve seen requests from all over the world as more countries want to start the process of vaccine manufacturing. From the U.S., we have done a significant amount of work through our Development Finance Corporation to ensure that we are trying to make some investments now that will help in the midst of this current pandemic, but also set the stage for some of the production beyond this as well. So through the Development Finance Corporation, the U.S. is working with Senegal, the Institut Pasteur, as well as South Africa, to do some of the production on the continent now for some of the vaccines that are being utilized.
Beyond that I know that there are ongoing discussions through the Development Finance Corporation, through the State Department, and through USAID to really look to the future. The U.S. has been very supportive of this issue around the TRIPS waiver and the voluntary tech transfer to be done on an equitable basis and in a reciprocal way. So, we have been very supportive of ensuring that there will be the future discussions that will allow for some of this technology to be utilized and the production to be more equitably done. Thanks for the question.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question: “In Africa, addressing information gaps may be one of the more difficult areas, specifically in the rural areas where access to technology is limited. How can we help in these areas? And what can countries do?”
Ms. Goodman: It’s an excellent question. Thank you so much. Because I do think that journalists have a significant role to play here, as your community leaders and really trusted, verified resources that are available at the community level – are what are going to change attitudes and help people get this important vaccine. So whether it’s the health care professionals, it’s the community leaders, it’s the journalists, all of us have a role to play to ensure that we are addressing these information gaps both, again, to spread the information about the importance of getting the vaccine, but also to help tamp down all the misinformation, the fake news that is circulating, whether it’s social media or from other sources.
So this has to be an absolutely critical piece that we need to all work on, and we need to plan for some increased efforts to ensure that we are enhancing the vaccine confidence and doing all we can to help spread – stop the spread of the false information.
So, I truly do hope that journalists will work with local media elements, medical, civil society, faith leaders to really promote the use of evidence-based, accurate, locally relevant messaging, because that will be so essential particularly in these rural areas that you’re talking about. Thank you. It’s a great question.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question, we will go live to Pearl Matibe of The Swaziland News in Eswatini. Ms. Matibe, you may ask your question.
Question: Thank you very much, and it’s good to finally virtually meet you, Assistant Secretary (sic). I just – and I look forward to more of these. My question to you is what do you say to naysayers who might be surprised as to why it’s taken this long for you to give an update on what is happening with the COVID efforts, particularly in Southern Africa? World Bank, for example, numbers on COVID-19 – if you take a look at Eswatini, it’s not doing quite as bad as others. Of its 1.2 million population, about 28.6 percent are fully vaccinated. And so, with your goal with this meeting with Secretary Blinken yesterday that you’re hoping to vaccinate by September 22 of this year, how would you close this gap? There’ll be a need here of maybe another 760,000 or so doses. If you take a look at South Africa, with a 60-or-so-odd-million population, only 17.4 million people are fully vaccinated, which means we’re only looking at about 29 percent of that population. How does the United States plan to help them? I understand the process of going through the AU and the AVAT system, which was taken care of last year. But do you have any bilateral efforts beyond that? Because quite honestly, the 5 million that the AU has asked for, that’s a drop in the bucket.
So I’m curious here as to what do you say to South Africans or to Swazis who might be naysayers in the projection here that there’s still not quite enough political will to address the needed gap, to close this gap by September? Thanks.
Ms. Goodman: It’s a great question, Pearl, truly. I think we have a couple of things that we would say in response to that. One, everyone needs to put more skin in this game, right? We need all of the African leaders, all of the European leaders, the Asian leaders – everyone in the world, frankly, needs to redouble efforts to help combat this COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that the vaccines are able to be offered to their citizens.
In the early stages of this pandemic, there was no vaccine. And then, once vaccine production started, we didn’t have enough of it. We now have enough vaccines globally. The question is, how do we get them into arms? And that truly has been a challenge in many of the countries in Africa where we need to move from the urban areas into the more rural areas to ensure that vaccines are equitably available even within the countries. That requires having better distribution systems in place. It requires cold-chain storage for some of the vaccines which require that. It also requires ensuring that we have all of the component parts that we need, whether that’s the needles and the syringes, because different vaccines require different syringes and needles than others.
It’s a very complicated logistical challenge that has to be addressed from start to finish to really turn those doses that are landing on airport tarmacs into vaccines getting into arms. It has not been done evenly to date. Some countries are better equipped to absorb the vaccines because of their underlying health systems and how much strengthening has been done of those health systems over the years. But we’re leveraging opportunities through things like PEPFAR, which has an extraordinary network across the African continent in combating HIV/AIDS, and has a network of community workers and leaders who are helping to work with us to also talk about some of the importance of COVID. The same is true of our presidential malaria initiative and some of these other efforts that have long been in place on the continent.
We actually have launched through USAID and the Centers for Disease Control a program that we’re calling Global VAX. And I’ll save the big announcements for some of my USAID colleagues who may be making those soon on which countries in Africa are going to be in our tier 1 of focus. But the effort behind Global VAX is all about the uptake issues. How do we turn these vaccines into vaccinations? How do we connect the dots to make sure that we are getting these vaccines distributed in a way that allows more people to have the opportunity to take the vaccine and that allows some of these countries which are lagging, as you noted there, Pearl, in meeting the 70 percent target?
We have a lot of work to do. There is no doubt about that, and we are very clear-eyed, as are the countries that joined us yesterday in this meeting. It is going to take a concerted, coordinated effort to hit the 70 percent mark. It was always an ambitious target, but it is what is needed if we’re going to break this cycle with COVID-19. That’s not to say that we’re going to eradicate COVID-19. It simply means that we don’t need to be living in a pandemic state. We can break this cycle once we have enough people vaccinated.
So there will be some very intensive work that happens in countries that have yet to even make the 10 percent vaccination rate, and there are some in the African continent where unfortunately that is true. So we will be focusing in a very concerted way in some of these countries that have yet to really have the uptake that is necessary to help us break the cycle. Thanks for the question.
Moderator: So one last question before we close out, and that is fighting the pandemic is a key priority of the Biden administration. However, as part of the Africa strategy, so is climate, so is trade, so is democracy and peace and security. How is the administration balancing this full plate for its engagement with the continent?
Ms. Goodman: Really important that we do all of this. There’s an expression in the U.S. that I’ve always heard growing up: We have to be able to walk and chew gum, right? We have to be able to do all of these things at once. It is not a choice when it comes to these global challenges of only responding to one and not the other. As we’re seeing, so much of the climate crisis is actually linked to some of our health crisis, right? We know that there are linkages. We know that addressing the trade issues is going to help us on, again, distributing COVID vaccines.
So many of these issues are interconnected and we have to be able to do all of these things and do them in partnership with the countries on the African continent who also are committed to addressing many of these needs in tandem.
We were very pleased yesterday at this meeting that Secretary Blinken hosted to have South Africa, Senegal, as well as the African CDC join us in that meeting. So they have made commitments as some of the early core leaders who will be stepping up to help us on this effort of the Global Action Plan. We will continue to be expanding to include other countries as well, but they were very much committed and part of the meeting in a really impactful way.
Moderator: Well, thank you. That is all the time that we have for today, so thank you, Acting Coordinator Goodman. Do you have any final remarks?
Ms. Goodman: Thank you all. I really am pleased at the questions around misinformation. I do think that journalists have a very critical role to helping us ensure that we have accurate information about the importance of the vaccine and the availability of the vaccine so that people can make their own informed decisions. Very much look forward to continuing the conversation with you. We have a lot of work that is happening. We’re going to stay involved in the COVID-19 response because we know that we have to do more to help address this issue for everyone everywhere. We truly believe that none of us are safe until all of us are safe, and our efforts are going to be geared towards making sure that we are able to really bring about an end to this pandemic cycle in 2022. So I hope all of you will help play a part in that as well. Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Acting Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security at the U.S. Department of State Mary Beth Goodman for speaking to us today, and thank all of our journalists for participating. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.
Ms. Goodman: Thank you all.
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