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White House struggle to define its vaccine diplomacy leaves Ukraine hanging

In February, Kvien said the U.S. would provide financial assistance to Ukraine to help it distribute the vaccine doses it received from COVAX.

“This is not our largest donation to date but it is comes at a critical moment,” Kvien said in a February statement. “It builds on our long-standing partnership with Ukraine to support health reform and combat infectious disease, including COVID. As you know we have provided already $48 million in assistance to Ukraine, for COVID alone.”

But officials working on the federal government’s Covid-19 response are still split on whether the U.S. should send doses overseas at a time when vaccination rates at home are slowing. As American demand slows, it is becoming harder for the administration to gauge how many doses it will be able to spare. U.S. critics note, however, that the country has more than 1 billion vaccine doses on order from multiple manufacturers — more than enough to inoculate every American.

The question of vaccine equity has taken on new urgency amid outbreaks in the southern hemisphere, with officials including World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accusing wealthy countries of hoarding doses. Officials in poor countries like Ukraine have grown increasingly panicked as the international COVAX program has been slow to deliver doses.

The vaccine diplomacy conversation is a relatively new one for Blinken, who on any other high-profile trip to Kyiv in any other time period would be concerned with primarily appealing to Ukraine’s concerns about Russia. But the Covid-19 pandemic has injected a new sense of anxiety in diplomatic meetings when countries are scrambling to get first in line for international Covid-19 assistance.

Ukraine’s access to Covid-19 vaccines is far from certain. The country has administered more than 750,000 doses to date. Most came from a batch of 12 million AstraZeneca doses that India’s Serum Institute sent in March. But local officials are in the throes of stockpiling to vaccinate the rest of the nearly 40 million people living in Ukraine.

Last month, Ukraine approved the use of more than 200,000 doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine it received in March. Ukraine is also set to receive an additional 16 million vaccine doses from COVAX. Kyiv also recently inked a deal with Pfizer for 20 million doses of its shot — enough to vaccinate 10 million people. It’s unclear when those Pfizer doses will arrive.

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