Chair DeLauro Statement at the U.S. Role in Global COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Hearing

2021-11-17 10:48

House Appropriations Committee Chair and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-03) delivered the following remarks at the subcommittee's hearing on the U.S. Role in Global COVID-19 Vaccine Equity:

I want to acknowledge Ranking Member Cole and all of our colleagues for joining this morning. And a thank you to our witnesses Dr. Kessler, Director Pace, and Dr. Disbrow for speaking with us on our nation’s role in global COVID-19 vaccine equity. 

Let me just start by saying that I am disturbed. I am disturbed by the general lack of urgency in ensuring that every person, across the world, has access to the COVID-19 vaccine. This pandemic has already sickened 250 million people and claimed more than five million lives across the globe. People are dying every day, and yet little progress has been made to deliver more vaccines to the countries that are being left behind. Even as many of us in the United States are receiving booster shots, fewer than five percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. By some estimates many people in low-income nations will not have access to vaccination until 2023 without significant increases in worldwide vaccine production and distribution. 

I do sincerely appreciate the work that the Biden Administration has done. After all, this administration has been delivering vaccine doses abroad since June and so far, the United States has donated more vaccines than all other countries combined. It is also encouraging that President Biden has pledged to donate at least 1.1 billion doses of vaccine by the end of next year while calling for 70 percent vaccination in all countries by fall 2022.  

I am particularly proud of the work that my friend Dr. David Kessler, who joins us here today, has done both during this pandemic and for many years as former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and under the leadership of three American presidents. I welcome his testimony and applaud his commitment to the health and safety of the American people. 

I just might add here that I was pleased, Dr. Kessler, to hear the Administration’s announcement today of a new initiative to invest in domestic vaccine production to increase vaccines by 1 billion doses per year. That’s the kind of effort we’re looking for but also wanting to hear how we’re going to accomplish that and how we are going to oversee that distribution as well. 

I also want to note the important role that BARDA has played during this pandemic, working extensively to scale up production of everything from PPE and at-home tests, to vaccine and therapeutic treatments. I am also grateful that BARDA has used funds provided by Congress to work with COVID vaccine manufacturers such as Moderna, and that it was BARDA’s many years of support for mRNA platform technology—along with decades of basic research at the NIH—that enabled Moderna to produce the COVID-19 vaccine.  

And I want to commend the efforts of Director Pace, whose Office of Global Health will be instrumental, along with USAID and CDC, in addressing vaccine equity efforts on the ground. 

But on the other hand, it is shocking to me that we have not received full and unfettered cooperation from all of our partners in this effort, including the private companies (such as Moderna) making billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers. 

The fact of the matter is every day that low-income countries remain vulnerable to COVID-19 is another day for the virus to mutate and to adapt. And if we fail to ensure their access to vaccines, those countries will become the breeding grounds for new variants—variants that may be more transmissible or even worse – vaccine resistant. 

I will be blunt—I do not believe we are moving fast enough. Unless we take a more active role in significantly increasing vaccine production and accelerating distribution worldwide, sharing technology, and expertise, scaling up health system capacity, and strengthening multilateral institutions we are essentially shooting ourselves in the foot, putting ourselves collectively at risk of a fifth, sixth, or seventh wave. We absolutely need to accelerate the production of COVID vaccine by any means necessary — including by invoking any legal authorities at our disposal to compel these vaccine companies to work with partners in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Quite frankly, it is not just our moral imperative to ensure the health and safety of our friends across the globe, it is in our own self interest.  

While the United States, as I noted earlier, has donated more vaccines than all other countries combined and has become a powerful leader in the fight to vaccinate the world, why is it taking so long to manufacture the vaccine? Why are we as a nation being held captive by a botched Trump-Administration contract—one that allowed Moderna to ignore the involvement of the NIH, and benefit from billions of dollars in taxpayer funds? 

Just this week, it was announced that Moderna is close to making an agreement to pledge doses to low- and middle-income countries in 2022. This is a positive step forward, but not enough. For the life of me I cannot understand why we are beholden to this company. People are dying, time is of the essence and in the midst of it all, Moderna is making billions of dollars—controlling vaccine production and negotiations of a lifesaving vaccine that HHS helped them to create. 

This is unacceptable. NIH and BARDA must be aggressive in protecting and asserting legal rights to their work. This administration must be aggressive in pursuing every option to work around this botched contract and to use every tool at its disposal to accelerate vaccine production, including the Defense Production Act. And President Biden must be aggressive in compelling other countries to back the TRIPs-waiver which would allow more countries to manufacture more COVID-19 vaccines. When the World Trade Organization meets later this month for its 12th Ministerial Conference, I will be watching closely to ensure the proposal on temporarily waiving some intellectual property rights rules under the TRIPs Agreement is accepted. 

I know that these are serious and they are complex issues that cannot be easily resolved. But I also know that failure is simply not an option. This pandemic will not be over until it is over around the world. I hope that through this hearing we can gain some clarity as to why we are not moving fast enough; why we are enabling a system that allows pharmaceutical companies like Moderna to profit off of global suffering; and how exactly we plan to vaccinate 8 billion people as soon as humanly possible.   

117th Congress