US to send vaccine stockpile to Mexico, Canada, dashing EU hopes

Some 4 million AstraZeneca doses EU sought expected to go to US neighbours

US president Joe Biden during his virtual bilateral meeting with the Taoiseach on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Erin Scott/ EPA

US president Joe Biden during his virtual bilateral meeting with the Taoiseach on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Erin Scott/ EPA

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The US is finalising plans to send millions of coronavirus vaccines to Canada and Mexico, dashing European hopes that the bloc could receive some of America’s stockpile of AstraZeneca doses in the near term.

A day after president Joe Biden met Taoiseach Micheál Martin, the White House confirmed plans to ship 4 million vaccine doses to Canada and Mexico. In total the US has 7 million “releasable doses” of vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, leaving open the possibility that the EU could still tap some of the supply ultimately.

“Our first priority remains vaccinating the US population... but the reality is that the pandemic knows no borders,” Ms Psaki said, as she confirmed the agreement with America’s closest neighbours.

The US, which signed a $1.2 billion agreement with AstraZeneca last May to develop and produce up to 300 million vaccines, has not yet given regulatory approval to the product as it awaits the results of US clinical trials. As a result tens of millions of vaccine doses are currently in factories in the US awaiting approval and distribution.

Canada and Mexico have both approved the AstraZeneca vaccines for use, and have been struggling with their own rollout programme. Mexico will receive 2.5 million doses, with Canada set to accept 1.5 million.

Ms Psaki pushed back on reports that Mexico’s allocation is tied to a broader deal which will see the country help deal with the migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border.

Ms Psaki said the discussions on border security were “overlapping”, but denied there was a quid pro quo involved. Under the plan being finalised, Canada and Mexico would send back vaccines to the US at a later date.

Surplus

The EU has approached the Biden administration at the highest level about securing access to surplus US vaccines but the US has so far refused.

Speaking after his meeting with Mr Biden on St Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach said Mr Biden’s main focus was “getting his own people vaccinated”.

He said the president had told him that the US was facing the same logistical challenge as Europe in terms of accessing sufficient supply for its own population. 

A White House official told The Irish Times that the administration did not accept the EU’s use of the phrase “export ban” to describe America’s Covid-19 vaccine strategy, noting America’s early investment in vaccine development and its contractual obligations.

The US has approved three vaccines for use – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – and has been ramping-up the pace of its vaccinations in recent weeks.

Mr Biden announced on Thursday that on Friday the administration would reach its goal of administering 100 million vaccine doses in the first 100 days of the Biden presidency. However, he warned Americans not to relax social distancing and other Covid-prevention measures.

“This is a time for optimism but it’s not a time for relaxation. I need all Americans, I need all of you to do your part. Now is not the time to let down our guard,” he said, noting an increase in Covid cases in several states.

“Scientists have made clear that things may get worse as new variants of the virus spread,” he added.

More than a dozen states have reported a rise in Covid-19 cases in the past week, and some states, such as Texas, have lifted mask mandates.

White House medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci said that Americans should continue to wear a face mask, even after they are vaccinated, during a heated exchange with Republican senator Rand Paul at a senate committee hearing on Thursday.

Mr Paul, who refuses to wear a mask after he contracted Covid in the early stages of the pandemic, accused Mr Fauci of wearing a mask for “political theatre”. However, the top immunologist said it was important to continue wearing a mask because of the threat of new variants.

“Can I just state for the record that masks are not theatre,” Mr Fauci said.