WASHINGTON – White House officials said Sunday that they are doing all they can to help India cope with the country's escalating coronavirus crisis, pushing back against criticism that the United States should be moving faster on actions such as waiving patent rights on vaccines.
In interviews on several political shows Sunday, Biden administration officials emphasized the aid the U.S. has already delivered to its South Asian ally, including the first planeloads of medical supplies and supplemental oxygen to the country on Friday. The United States has also diverted raw materials for vaccines to India.
"In a crisis of this speed and ferocity, we always wish we could move faster and do more. And we're proud of what we've done so far," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on ABC's "This Week." "We are continuing to work to source additional critical materials to move them as fast as we can, both directly from the United States and also galvanizing partners around the world."
A recent surge in coronavirus cases has sent the pandemic spiraling anew in India, which reported more than 400,000 new coronavirus cases Saturday, a new global record. People being treated for covid-19, the illness that can be caused by the novel coronavirus, have overwhelmed hospitals there, while images of mass cremations and funeral pyres burning overnight have spread worldwide.
"We are concerned about variants. We're concerned about spread," Sullivan said. "We're concerned about the loss of life, and also all of the secondary effects that emerge as this pandemic rages out of control in India."
On Monday, President Joe Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and pledged to provide supplemental oxygen, personal protective equipment and other medical supplies to the country.
Modi and other world officials have called on the United States to go a step further and waive vaccine patent protections, saying that would let other countries and companies speed up production of generics and expedite the vaccination effort worldwide.
"If a temporary waiver to patents cannot be issued now, during these unprecedented times, when will be the right time?" Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, tweeted in March. "Solidarity is the only way out."
The administration has also vowed to share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries, prompted in large part by the crisis in India. Officials made that announcement several days ago, adding assurances here that the United States does not need the AstraZeneca vaccine to continue inoculating the U.S. population.
Vaccines made by Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are being administered in the United States, and public health officials say that is more than enough for all Americans. Increasingly, the administration's biggest challenge is not obtaining vaccine doses but persuading Americans to take them.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden, said that the 60 million AstraZeneca doses the U.S. has promised to other countries have been ordered but that not all have been produced. The AstraZeneca vaccine is undergoing a safety review by the Food and Drug Administration.
"To be clear, there isn't some huge warehouse filled with AstraZeneca vaccines that we can just release at a moment's notice," Dunn said on CNN's "State of the Union." "As soon as it is ready to be shared with the world, we plan to share it."
On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that despite the calls by Modi and others, vaccine patents were only part of the problem, and that manufacturing limits would still hinder production.
"India has its own vaccine, the Covishield vaccine," Klain said. "Production is slow there because they don't have the scarce raw materials to make that. We sent enough raw materials to make 20 million doses immediately. Intellectual property rights is part of the problem, but manufacturing is the biggest problem."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the United States had an obligation to share vaccines with the rest of the world faster, particularly in poorer countries.
"Not only do we have a moral responsibility to help the rest of the world, it's in our own self-interest, because if this pandemic continues to spread in other countries, it's going to come back and bite us at one point or another," Sanders said.
Sanders and other Democratic senators last month sent a letter to Biden, urging him to support a temporary patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines, one of several efforts to advocate what some have taken to calling "vaccine diplomacy." China and Russia, some critics note, have been aggressive about distributing their vaccines to developing countries, a move that could help them earn goodwill.
A temporary patent waiver would let the Biden administration not only "reverse the damage done by the Trump administration" to U.S. reputation but bring the global pandemic to an end more quickly, the senators wrote.
"What we have got to say right now to the drug companies, when millions of lives are at stake around the world, is, 'Yes, allow other countries to have these intellectual property rights so that they can produce the vaccines that are desperately needed in poor countries,' " Sanders said Sunday.
Sullivan said Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, has been engaged in "intensive consultations" at the World Trade Organization to work through the issue of waiving vaccine patents.
"We should have a way forward in the coming days," Sullivan said on "This Week."