The US is approaching a turning point where Covid vaccinations are sharply reducing infection and hospitalization rates, key figures in the fight against the disease said on Sunday, though the Biden administration is facing mounting pressure to do more to help other nations still in the grip of the disease.
“We are turning the corner,” said Jeffrey Zients, the White House Covid response coordinator. With about 58% of adult Americans having received at least one shot of vaccine, and with some 113 million people now fully vaccinated, the country was on track to meet Joe Biden’s goal of 70% of the population at least partially vaccinated by 4 July, he said.
“I think everyone is tired, and wearing a mask can be a pain. But we are getting there, and the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter and brighter,” Zients said, speaking on CNN’s State of the Union show.
Anthony Fauci struck a similar upbeat note on ABC News’s This Week. The nation’s top infectious diseases expert said it was time to start loosening guidelines and allowing Americans to start enjoying the benefits of vaccination.
“Yes we do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated,” Fauci said. But he added that the battle was still on to get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated, because when that happened “the virus has nowhere else to go”.
The daily load of new Covid cases has plummeted with the advent of vaccines in the US, from a seven-day average of more than 250,000 per day in January to the current average of about 43,000. Hospitalisations and deaths are also dramatically down.
But as the US begins to feel the benefits of widespread vaccination, other parts of the world are still mired in the depths of the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the inequity in access to vaccines “grotesque” and a “moral outrage”.
The WHO has pointed out that across the globe the past two weeks have seen more cases recorded than in the entire first six months of the pandemic, with India bearing the brunt. Daily cases are rising at alarming rates across south Asia, and observers are especially worried about Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
India continues to smash global records for new cases – more than 400,000 – and deaths (3,915). The country is grappling with dire shortages of oxygen and other essential hospital supplies.
Last month Biden promised that the US would send oxygen-related supplies and vaccine materials to India. The US has also indicated it will provide up to 60m doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries struggling to protect their people from the virus, an act of altruism arguably diminished by the fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not approved for use in the US.
In addition, the Biden administration has backed the campaign to waive patents on vaccines to allow low-income countries to make their own versions.
Despite these recent concessions, Biden has come under intense pressure to do more to help ailing nations. In the early weeks of his presidency he refused to budge from the position that the US would only send vaccines abroad once all Americans had had the chance of being immunised.
On Sunday, Fauci called on the manufacturers of vaccines in the US to scale up production “in a great way” to allow large quantities of supplies to reach India quickly. He said the ambition would be for “literally hundreds of millions of doses” destined for India and other needy countries.
Asked whether waiving intellectual property rights on the patents would prevent the big US companies from making more vaccines for transport abroad, Fauci said “I don’t think that’s the case. They can scale up. I think the waiving of the patents is not going to necessarily interfere with that right now.”
The contrast between countries in Africa where only 1% of the population is vaccinated and the US where almost 60% of adults have received at least one shot is all the more glaring given that at home in the US the emphasis now is not on accessing supplies of vaccines but on overcoming vaccine hesitancy. Several states are turning away allotted vaccines because demand is so low.
Fauci said the group of those who were “recalcitrant” was relatively small. The Biden administration was seeking to overcome resistance among them by making vaccinations extremely easy to obtain, through walk-in pharmacies and mobile units, he said.
The other method being pursued was to use “trusted messengers” – whether sports or entertainment stars, clergy or family doctors. They would spread the word that vaccines were a safe way of getting back to what Fauci described as “what we used to remember as ‘normal’ before all this happened”.