U.S. President Joe Biden signalled Wednesday that he might share more of the tens of millions of unused AstraZeneca vaccine doses his country has been hoarding for months, following pleas from Canada to help bolster its lagging vaccination drive.
Mr. Biden told reporters Wednesday that he was “looking at what is going to be done with some of the vaccines that we are not using” after a half-hour telephone call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The United States has a stockpile of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine expected to reach 30 million doses by the end of this month. But the country still has not approved the vaccine for use, and is unlikely to ever need it, given its rapidly expanding supplies of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Canada, meanwhile, badly needs the shots, as supply problems have kept its inoculation efforts far behind the U.S. Last month, the U.S. authorized a “loan” of 1.5 million AstraZeneca doses to Canada and 2.5 million to Mexico. But the rest of the shots have remained languishing in the U.S., many of them in an Ohio facility less than a four-hour drive from the border. Canada has pressed for more.
Mr. Biden said Wednesday the U.S. would be able to “be of some help and value to countries around the world.”
“We’ve talked to our neighbours. Matter of fact, a fella who’s working really hard … the Prime Minister of Canada. We helped a little bit there. We’re going to try to help some more,” Mr. Biden said.
The President made the comments after he announced that the U.S. has administered 200 million doses. By comparison, Canada has administered 10.7 million as of Wednesday.
Mr. Biden also said there are other countries he’s “confident” the U.S. will be able to assist, including in Central America, but Americans will continue to be priority. “We don’t have enough to be confident to send it abroad now, but I expect we’ll be able to do that,” he said.
Neither the White House nor Mr. Trudeau’s office on Wednesday would say whether any specific commitment has been made by the U.S. on additional AstraZeneca doses.
One Canadian official said no further AstraZeneca shipment from the U.S. has so far been confirmed. The person, whom The Globe and Mail has agreed not to name, said the Canadian government is keenly aware that the U.S. has a big AstraZeneca stash it isn’t using, and would love to get its hands on some.
The source said Canadian officials have made the case to their U.S. counterparts that it’s in the best interest of the United States to help its neighbours get the virus under control to help keep the pandemic down in the U.S.
In an official summary of the call, Mr. Biden’s office said the two leaders agreed to continue efforts to “control the pandemic, collaborate on public-health responses and global health security, as well as to support global affordable access and delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said the two leaders discussed “the urgency of getting people everywhere vaccinated as quickly as possible” and “the recent exchange of AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in the United States.” The PMO also said that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Biden discussed Thursday’s international climate summit, the pandemic and the continuing detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China.
Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said there is no good reason for the U.S. to keep holding on to its idling pile of AstraZeneca. At this point, it is highly unlikely the country will ever use the shots itself.
“Their supply will well exceed their current demand, so I think they probably won’t use it in the U.S. Their stockpile is bigger than they need,” he said in an interview. “If they can be used in Mexico or Canada, logistically that’s the easiest for the U.S. to get the shot here. For opening up the NAFTA frontiers again, that would make obvious sense.”
The U.S. vaccine rollout has been expanding to such a degree that everyone over the age of 16 became eligible for a shot as of this week. Mr. Biden has said everyone who wants to be vaccinated should have received a shot by the end of May.
Given this, the Biden administration has not explained why exactly it is hoarding doses of a vaccine it will not need. Jeff Zients, Mr. Biden’s pandemic czar, said last month that the country wanted to have an AstraZeneca stockpile ready to go as soon as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the shot. But more than a month later, that approval still has not come.
AstraZeneca officials last month said they planned to have 20 million shots made in the U.S. by the end of March and 30 million by the end of April.
Under the terms of AstraZeneca’s contract with the U.S. government, all doses made in the U.S. belong to the government, meaning the company cannot sell them to Canada without U.S. approval. Mr. Biden only authorized the “loan” of doses last month after prodding from the company to share the shots.
With reports from Marieke Walsh in Ottawa and The Canadian Press
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