In the latest Senate package targeted at stopping the coronavirus, U.S. lawmakers dropped nearly all funding for curbing the virus beyond American borders, a move many health experts slammed as dangerously short-sighted.
They warn the suspension of COVID-19 aid for poorer countries could ultimately allow the kind of unchecked transmission needed for the next worrisome variant to emerge and unravel much of the progress achieved so far.
The U.S. has been the biggest contributor to the global pandemic response, delivering more than 500 million vaccines, and the lack of funding will be a major setback. The money has paid for numerous interventions, including a mass vaccination campaign in the Cameroonian capital that saw hundreds of thousands of people get their first dose, as well as the construction of a COVID-19 care facility in South Africa and the donation of 1,000 ventilators to that country.
Other U.S.-funded vaccination campaigns in dozens of countries, including Uganda, Zambia, Ivory Coast and Mali, could also come to a grinding halt.
"Any stoppage of funds will affect us," said Misaki Wayengera, a Ugandan official who heads a technical committee advising the government on the pandemic response. He said Uganda has leaned heavily on donor help — it received more than 11 million vaccines from the U.S. — and that any cuts "would make it very difficult for us to make ends meet."
"This is a bit of a kick in the teeth to poor countries that were promised billions of vaccines and resources last year in grand pledges made by the G7 and the G20," said Michael Head, a global health research fellow at Britain's Southampton University.
"Given how badly we've failed on vaccine equity, it's clear all of those promises have now been broken," he said, adding that without concerted effort and money to fight COVID-19 in the coming months, the pandemic could persist for years.
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While about 66% of the American population has been fully immunized against the coronavirus, fewer than 15% of people in poorer countries have received a single dose. Health officials working on COVID-19 vaccination in developing countries supported by the U.S. say they expect to see a reversal of progress once the funds disappear.
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"Vaccination will stop or not even get started in some countries," said Rachel Hall, executive director of U.S. government advocacy at the charity CARE. She cited estimates from USAID that the suspended funding would mean scrapping testing, treatment and health services for about 100 million people.