WASHINGTON — President Biden, heeding widespread calls to step up his response to the pandemic’s surge abroad, said on Monday that his administration would send 20 million doses of federally authorized coronavirus vaccine overseas in June — the first time he has pledged to give away doses that could be used in the United States.
The donation is another step toward what Mr. Biden promised would be an “entirely new effort” to increase vaccine supplies and vastly expand manufacturing capacity, most of it in the United States. He also put Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, in charge of developing a global strategy.
“We know America will never be fully safe until the pandemic that’s raging globally is under control,” Mr. Biden said in a brief appearance at the White House. “No ocean’s wide enough, no wall’s high enough, to keep us safe.”
With new cases and deaths plummeting as vaccination rates rise in the United States, the epicenter of the crisis has moved to India and other nations. A growing and bipartisan chorus of diplomats, health experts and business leaders has been pushing the president to do more to end what the AIDS activist Asia Russell calls “vaccine apartheid.”
Mr. Biden said on Monday that 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines — all approved for domestic use — would be sent abroad. That is in addition to the 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine he pledged last month, though those doses are not approved for domestic use and cannot be released until regulators deem them safe.
“He’s crossed the threshold into direct donations,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which teamed up with three other health institutes on Monday to release a plan to ramp up vaccine supply. “That’s an important shift.”
International health activists want far more.
“Donating 80 million doses of vaccines without a plan to scale up production worldwide is like putting a Band-Aid on a machete wound,” said Gregg Gonsalves, a longtime AIDS activist.
Those 80 million doses amounted to five times the number that any other country had donated, Mr. Biden said, noting that taking the lead in helping the world beat back the coronavirus was a chance to reassert American authority. And unlike Russia and China, which have sought to use their vaccines as an instrument of diplomacy, the United States will not expect any favors in return, the president said.
“We want to lead the world with our values, with this demonstration of our innovation and ingenuity, and the fundamental decency of the American people,” Mr. Biden said. “Just as in World War II America was the arsenal of democracy, in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic our nation’s going to be the arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world.”
Mr. Biden’s announcement came not long after a World Health Organization news conference at which the director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that countries with high vaccination rates had to do more to help countries that were being hit hard by the coronavirus, or the entire world would be imperiled.
May 17, 2021, 6:24 p.m. ET
“There is a huge disconnect growing where, in some countries with the highest vaccination rates, there appears to be a mind-set that the pandemic is over, while others are experiencing huge waves of infection,” Dr. Tedros said.
Variants like B.1.617, first discovered in India and recently designated a variant of concern by the W.H.O., are contributing to the spread of infections and worry many researchers.
Dr. Tedros called for well-supplied nations to send more of their vaccine allocations to harder-hit countries, and for vaccine developers and manufacturers to hasten delivery of hundreds of millions of doses to Covax, an international initiative dedicated to equitable distribution of the vaccine, noting an appeal by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director.
Mr. Biden took office vowing to restore the United States as a leader in global public health, and he has taken certain steps to do so: rejoining the World Health Organization, pledging $4 billion to an international vaccine effort and providing financial support to help Biological E, a vaccine manufacturer in India, produce at least one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2022.
To broaden supply further, Mr. Biden recently announced he would support waiving intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines. But activists say simply supporting the waiver is not enough; Mr. Biden must create the conditions for pharmaceutical companies to transfer their intellectual property to vaccine makers overseas, they argue. They view his efforts as piecemeal.
“We’re after 100 days into the administration, and what Biden should be delivering is a global battle plan against vaccine apartheid, and the announcement today is lines on a Post-it note,” Ms. Russell said, adding, “There must be a global strategy led by the U.S. that’s based on technology transfer, on forcing pharma to come to the table to share the recipe.”
The pharmaceutical industry opposes waiving the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as TRIPS. Vaccine manufacturers assert that a fix is already at hand as they aggressively expand production lines and contract with counterparts around the world to yield billions of additional doses.
An open letter to the president, made public last week by a bipartisan group including business leaders, diplomats and a former defense secretary, argued that such a waiver “would make little difference and could do harm.”
While global health activists are strongly in favor of the waiver, some said they welcomed the views of the business community. They see clear parallels to their work fighting the global AIDS epidemic.
“It shows an unprecedented willingness of pharma and its allies in the private sector to admit what all of us having been saying for months — the private sector alone cannot and will not ensure global vaccine access,” James Krellenstein, a founder of PrEP4All, a nonprofit aimed at ensuring universal access to H.I.V. prevention and treatment, wrote in an email on Sunday. “It really shifts the burden to the Biden administration,” he added.
The organizer of the open letter, Hank Greenberg, the chairman of Starr Companies and former chairman of American International Group, the insurance industry giant, said in an interview on Monday that Mr. Biden’s announcement did not go far enough.
Mr. Greenberg, 96, a veteran of World War II, said he was inspired to write after a former chief executive of an A.I.G. subsidiary who later became the ambassador from the Philippines to the United States told him he was not able to get vaccinated. Like Mr. Biden, he used language that evoked the war effort.
“If we don’t do it,” he asked, “who will?”