Africa: Briefing on U.S. Global COVID-19 Response and Vaccine Donations to the African Union


Transcript: Special Online Briefing – Gayle E. Smith, State Department Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security; and Akunna Cook, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs

Moderator:  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion.  Today we are very pleased to be joined by Gayle E. Smith, State Department Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security, and Akunna Cook, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.  Ms. Smith and Ms. Cook will discuss partnerships and U.S. leadership and contributions in the global effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic, including the recent U.S. donation of approximately 25 million COVID-19 vaccines to the African Union.  We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ms. Smith and Ms. Cook, then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the briefing.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  And with that, I will turn it over to Gayle Smith, State Department Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security, for her opening remarks.

Ms. Smith: Thanks so much, and good afternoon, everybody.  And thank you for all the really important work that you do.  One of the things that’s really, really vital during a crisis like this is the kind of information and reporting you provide, so we’re really grateful for your work.

I’m pleased to be here with my colleague as members of a team that is working to carry out President Biden’s commitment to share vaccines around the world.  As you’ve just heard, and many of you know because vaccines are beginning to arrive in Africa now, we’re in the process of delivering the 25 million doses, working closely with the African Union, governments, and COVAX to get these on the ground as quickly as possible.  I’m also pleased to tell you that in August, the doses that the President committed just before the G7, 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, will also start moving in August, and a significant portion of those will also be deployed to Africa.

 We’re delivering 25 million vaccines to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Senegal

So we’re pleased to be working with partners in Africa – again, governments, civil society, healthcare workers and organizations, the African Union given its prominent role, the Africa CDC – to move these vaccines out there as quickly as possible.  Because we’re well aware that coverage is low, that this third wave is intense, that the Delta variant is quite strong, and we need to do everything we can in partnership with the people and governments of Africa to get these vaccines out there.

So I’m going to stop there and just say we’re really looking forward to taking your questions.  And thanks again for covering these important issues.

Ms. Cook: Good morning for those of you here in Washington, and afternoon for those of you around the world joining us for today’s media hub call on U.S. COVID-19 vaccine donations to Africa.  As Marissa mentioned, my name is Akunna Cook and I’m a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and health security falls within my portfolio for issues around the country.

I know many of you have questions about the U.S. global COVID-19 response and the status of our plans for vaccine-sharing, particularly in Africa.  And I will say that we are pleased to be delivering safe and effective vaccine doses across Africa and the world, with the first vaccines being delivered to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Senegal, with many more to come later this week and over the coming weeks and months.  And this is just the beginning.

Our response is but the latest in the long record of U.S. cooperation with African partners in enhancing Africa’s health security, whether through PEPFAR, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the Global Health Security Agenda on Ebola, maternal and child health, and so many other areas.  All of this is part of our commitment to Africa’s health infrastructure, an infrastructure that is helping us meet the demands of this COVID response.

Extensive U.S. investments in sub-Saharan Africa in health, over $100 billion over the past 20 years, have saved millions of lives, but more importantly, have strengthened the resiliency of health systems.  Around two-thirds of U.S. foreign assistance to Africa remains focused on the health sector.  Africa is a priority for this administration, and we are proud of the resiliency that African nations have demonstrated in the face of this pandemic.  We remain committed to becoming – to staying a leading partner in African countries’ response to pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks.

And with that, I thank you and look forward to your questions.

Moderator: Thank you, Ms. Smith and Ms. Cook.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.  We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: partnerships and U.S. leadership and contributions in the global effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic.  We have received some questions submitted in advance by email, and journalists may continue to submit questions in English on Twitter and via email to AFMediaHub@state.gov.  Please be considerate to other journalists on the call and make your questions as brief as possible in the interest of time.

Our first question will go live to Mesfin Bezu of Ethiopia.  Mesfin, please ask your question and state your affiliation.

Question:  Thank you.  Can you hear me?

Moderator:   Yes, we can.  Please go ahead.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you for giving me this chance.  Some people under U.S. Government have been – as you say, donated 453,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Ethiopia.  But some people have raised questions about the Johnson vaccine.  On July 12, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration approved an update to the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine fact sheet to include an increased risk of the rare nerve condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome.  Because of such report and other misinformation, some people believe that Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is not effective.  What do you say to the people who are suspicious of the effectiveness of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine?  Thank you for the chance.

Ms. Smith:  Sure.  Mesfin, I’m happy to take that one, and it’s a really important question because I think everywhere, including in your country, and we are certainly facing this here, people do have concerns and questions about the safety of vaccines.  And what we’ve done here, and I think that the best answer to give people, is we rely on our public health and safety experts and regulators, so in our case, the Food and Drug Administration, but also a lot of the public health experts you have seen, our CDC and others.  And they have determined that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe and effective.  There is a very, very minuscule data suggesting that there can be some effects, but it’s very, very, very tiny.  The positive effects far outweigh any of those.  And again, I think what I would say is that if public health and safety regulators declare a vaccine safe, that’s good enough for me.

So our regulators have done so, and part of the arrangement we make with countries is to work with their regulators so that there is confirmation of safety on the other end.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question will also go live to Mr. Simon Ateba.  Mr. Ateba, please ask your question.

Question:  Yes.  Thank you for taking my question.  This is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa in Washington, D.C.  And thank you for doing this.  I was wondering, apart from the 25 million doses that have been sent to Africa, how many doses are we expecting in total from the    half a billion doses that the President promised at the G7?  And do we also know the criteria that they take into consideration to choose countries?  Thank you.

Ms. Smith:  Sure.  Happy to take that also, and another good question.  On the 500 million doses, we are donating those through COVAX.  And the way that works is they do allocations every month and at a given time period.  And the reason they do that is they need to look around the world, see what the levels of vaccine availability are, what incidence is – they’re also aiming at equity – and then they make the allocation.  So I can’t give you an exact number.  The first 60 million of those doses will be deployed in August.

We’re deliberately trying to put a focus on the [African] continent

What I can tell you is that Africa will receive a significant portion, both because we recognize that coverage is still low even with our shared doses, with the doses that the AU has procured and others, but also because in the President’s announcement of these doses, his focus was very much on what are called the AMC countries under COVAX and the countries of the African Union, because there are some African countries who are not members of COVAX.  So we’re deliberately trying to put a focus on the continent.  So it will be a good number, but we’ll only be able to tell you that incrementally.

The criterion, very briefly, we look at a number of things.  We look at coverage of the vaccines.  We look at the vulnerabilities, i.e. what we know about the state of the pandemic in a given country.  We look at what may be available elsewhere.  And then we allocate accordingly.  One of the reasons that we spread this first tranche of doses so far and wide across the continent is that coverage is universally low, so we want to start building that up as quickly as possible.

Moderator:  DAS Cook, can you tell us a little bit about the Biden administration and the policy towards COVID-19 and the policy that we are using in order to help in a multilateral framework with COVAX?  Why is the Biden administration doing this?

Ms. Cook: Sure.  Marissa, at the end of the day you cannot stop this pandemic anywhere in the world without stopping everywhere in the world.  And so the Biden administration recognized that Africa, as in every other region of the world, had to be a part of meeting the challenges of this pandemic.  And that meant getting vaccines out and getting shots into arms as quickly as possible.

As I mentioned, this really just builds on a longstanding partnership we’ve had in Africa focused on health, whether it be PEPFAR, whether it be the systems we’ve built to respond to malaria.  We’re doing this to ensure that Africa can meet the challenges of this pandemic and then be prepared to meet the challenges of health security, any health security challenges coming in the future.  And that’s why we are also partnering to invest in vaccine manufacturing on the continent, for example.  So this is just the latest in a long line of policy initiatives in Africa focused on health security.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question goes to Pearl Matibe.  Pearl, you may ask your question live.

Question:  Yes.  Thank you so much, both of you, Gayle and Akunna.  It’s very nice to have you, and giving us this opportunity.  So my question is this:  In our efforts to help you project and tell Africans the work that the Biden administration is doing, there is a sense of trust.  So my question is regarding trust.  And I’m using South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique as the example here.  South Africa has just gone through a tumultuous few days with the violence erupting.  I would like to understand from you, how can we help overcome – there’s an element of distrust of the United States.  President Ramaphosa has addressed the nation a few times and has mentioned in his remarks that the West – he didn’t mention a country – are hogging vaccines.

I’ve taken a look at the Gavi website and I don’t yet see a rollout to South Africa.  On the other hand, we have Zimbabwe, which seems to be preferring the China/Russia vaccines, and in Mozambique we’ve had just reports of 10,000 refugees being sent back from Tanzania across the border.  So how are you overcoming these challenges?  How can we help you as we try to overcome this element of trust within what the U.S. is doing?  Thank you so much.

Ms. Smith:  Yeah.  Let me very briefly say something with respect to the vaccines on this, and Akunna may want to add.  As the President said, we are doing this with no strings.  We are not asking governments to take a position in our favor on the Security Council, to buy our goods, to do anything else, much as we have done with all of the other investments we’ve made in Africa’s progress on health that Akunna illuminated.

Our intent here is very clear.  We want to see Africa defeat this pandemic.  We want to see Africa be resilient and to thrive.  So there are no strings attached is, I think, the first and most important message that we can offer.  We are delivering vaccines across the board.  As to Gavi’s allocations, I would refer you to Gavi.  But what we are trying to do is make as many vaccines as possible available as quickly as possible.  And as Akunna said, this is only the beginning.

So I think it’s also fair to say, judge us by our actions and see what we do, and if anybody wants to contrast it to what anybody else does, they’re free to do so.

Our assistance is really about being good partners to Africa.  It’s not about coercion or influence. 

Moderator: DAS Cook, would you like to add something regarding the mistrust and perhaps even disinformation on that?

Ms. Cook: Right.  Yeah.  I mean, I think Gayle’s comments cover a lot of this, which is that we have long been partners of Africa, and our assistance is really about being good partners to Africa.  It’s not about coercion or influence.  It’s really about wanting to make sure that our African partners are resilient and are able to have a strong and healthy future in this increasingly interdependent and interconnected world.  Vaccines don’t – viruses don’t know borders.  Right?  And so it is clear to us that defeating this pandemic everywhere, including in Africa, is essential.

On mistrust, I think it’s – we as the United States, we see ourselves in a leadership position.  That’s why we are sharing these vaccine doses that we have available, and we’re trying to do it as quickly as possible.  As Gayle mentioned, there are a number of logistical factors that factor into how many allocations go when – where and when.  But we are working tirelessly, and seemingly around the clock, to make sure that we get these vaccines out as quickly as possible to all of the countries that you mentioned, Pearl.  But thank you for the question.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next question we will go live to Michelle Murray from Mauritius.  Michelle, please ask your question.  Michelle, are you on?  Okay.  I see that –

Question:  Can you hear me now?

Moderator:   We can hear you now.  Please go ahead.

Question:  Excellent.  Okay.  Good afternoon.  I’m actually from the Seychelles, the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation.  And my question relates to the fact that Seychelles, as a small island developing state, we’ve been spearheading the vaccine campaign locally since January and we’ve been using several vaccines – the Sinopharm, Covishield.  So I would like to understand whether the vaccine donation from the U.S. to the African Union, is it meant to complement already the vaccination campaign that certain countries have put in place?  Because there is an element of several of the vaccines that are being used in the Seychelles, we can see at the level of Europe, for example, they are not being recognized, especially in terms of travel.  So I would like to understand from the position of the Government of the United States, the vaccines being given to the African Union, is it meant to complement already the vaccination campaign underway and the other vaccines that are being used and being sourced from other countries?

Ms. Smith:  Sure.

Question:  And maybe just a clarification is:  What kind of vaccine is actually – because maybe I missed that – what kind of vaccine is being given to the African Union?

Ms. Smith:  So a couple of things.  The kinds of vaccines that we are providing are Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J.  And there is an entire process in actually sharing vaccines.  It’s not quite as easy as us just putting them on a plane and sending them and someone picking them up at the other end.  We go through a detailed legal and regulatory process with host governments to make sure that that vaccine is approved in a given country, because each country does its own approval process, and so on and so forth.

So it’s anticipated that these would complement existing programs and that where we can be consistent – if a country is already using Moderna, if we can provide Moderna there we try to do that.  We can’t always do that, but those are the three that we are focused on.  And we did this also in tandem and in consultation with the AU and COVAX because, importantly, as I think you may know, the AU itself purchased a significant number of Johnson & Johnson doses months ago, and those will be rolling out in August as well.  We wanted to make sure that between and among us, we’ve got tight coordination between the United States, the African Union, and COVAX.  But those are the three that we provide.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next question, we’ll go to Diana Ngon, who typed in a question in our Q&A.  She’s a reporter from Citi FM TV in Ghana.  “I want to find out the criteria used in selecting beneficiary countries.  Secondly, what is the long-term sustainable plan for the vaccine donation?”

It’s important that Africa produce vaccines for its own consumption. We’re investing through our Development Finance Corporation right now in South Africa and Senegal in increased vaccine production

Ms. Smith: I will take that.  Our criteria are predominantly public health criteria, but again, globally and with respect to Africa, one of the things we want to achieve since coverage is universally low is to make sure that we can help as many countries as possible start in earnest a vaccine regimen.  Our plan – as Akunna said, this is just the beginning; we’re going to continue to share doses.  We are pressing other countries to do more, whether through financial contributions to COVAX or sharing their own doses to bring those online as quickly as possible, and we have Pfizer and AU doses coming on in August.  So we are expecting – but we’re all going to have to work at this – an increasingly regular supply.  But it’s going to take a lot of time and energy to do that.

Let me just mention quickly one of the things we’re doing, is that we believe that, for now and for the future, it’s important that Africa produce vaccines for its own consumptions rather than being dependent on having to import those in the majority of its medical requirements.  So we’re investing through our Development Finance Corporation right now in South Africa and Senegal in increased vaccine production and will be making other investments – again, to help increase the number of COVID vaccines available, but to increase over time Africa’s ability to produce its own vaccines.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We’re going to go to another question into our – in our chat, but before we get to Mr. Kennedy Abate from Ethiopia’s question, a question for you, DAS Cook, again, regarding the Biden administration.  And how is the administration working to handle the priorities, especially in Africa, when we have issues related to terrorism in the Sahel, we have issues in Mozambique, we have several other factors that truly weigh in in how this vaccination plan has been rolled out?  What is the Biden administration’s plan to prioritize this vaccine distribution and donation?

Ms. Cook:  Thank you for that question.  Health security and getting this pandemic under control is priority number one for the administration.  We are, of course, facing a number of challenges.  So we have this pandemic that we’re trying to get under control; we have this climate crisis that we are trying to handle; of course, an economic recession that is a result, partially a result of the pandemic; in addition, quite frankly, to a democracy crisis here at home and around the world.  And so when you look at all of these myriad challenges that are facing us right now, we can’t really move forward on any of these until we get the pandemic under control.  And that is why the Biden-Harris administration has been singularly focused on making sure that we get vaccines out as quickly as possible to as many countries as possible, and that, of course, includes Africa.

We’ve been working through the African Union because of the – some of the logistical challenges that are – that we can address by working through the African Union, but also because we understand that multilateralism is important in Africa and to its future.  And so we are working in partnership with the African Union, with African countries, as we’ve mentioned a few times on this call, to make sure that Africa is prepared for the future pandemics that might be coming down the line.

Moderator:  So that’s actually a good lead-in to Kennedy Abate’s question out of Ethiopia.  He writes, “In addition to providing vaccines, does the United States believe in providing licenses for poor countries to produce vaccines locally?”  Don’t know if licensing is the terminology that —

Ms. Smith: Yeah.

Moderator:  — we’re supposed to use, but please, Ms. Smith.

Ms. Smith:  Yes.  No, the administration is on record in support of voluntary licensing.  So, yes.  And again, as I said earlier, one of the things we think is really important, if you look at the data, Africa imports a huge percentage of its requirements not just for vaccines, but also therapeutics and medical supplies, and that’s a vulnerability.  It’s also a huge opportunity if you think about the need for job creation, for growing strong economies.  So one of the things we are very committed to doing and are already doing and will sustain our work on is investing in those capabilities, is working with American producers to encourage that they, too, invest and strike joint partnerships and other things that would increase that production.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next question, we’ll go to our Q&A, from Xolile Bhengu from The Mercury in Durban, South Africa.  “Good afternoon.  What advice would you have for the South African Government on accelerating their vaccine rollout campaigns?  Are you planning to assist Africa on any other vaccine campaigns that have taken a back seat because of the COVID-19 pandemic?”

Ms. Smith:  Yeah, I’d say a couple of things.  We are very eager and actively working through USAID, Gavi, and our country teams to make sure that regular immunization, particularly for kids, doesn’t decline in the face of the pandemic.  We’ve got to keep that going because we know how many lives that has saved and how many kids and teens and adults are around today doing wonderful things because of the availability of vaccines.  So we’re actively working to do that.

On South Africa, I mean, South Africa’s record in terms of the number of vaccines being administered daily has been pretty high and pretty effective, and we would strongly encourage them to maintain and expand on those rates as they’re able.  They will have additional supply, so that should help.  And again, I think at a time of crisis, focusing on something that unites us – that we are all vulnerable to this virus, it doesn’t matter who we are – hopefully can be something that across the continent – it’s worked in some places here, not everywhere – but is something that can unite us.  Because, as Akunna said, we can’t end this pandemic anywhere unless we end it everywhere, and that’s also true for people and individuals.  The virus just wants to get to all of us, regardless of who we are, so we’ve got to work together to make sure it doesn’t.