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Zients Failed and the World Paid the Price

Jha Must Lead White House Global Covid Response with Far More Vision and Ambition

Washington, D.C. – President Biden announced that White House Covid coordinator Jeffrey Zients will step down, to be replaced by Dr. Ashish K. Jha. On March 9, more than 100 scientists, public health experts and civil society leaders wrote to President Biden saying that “the United States is failing in its efforts to adequately address the worldwide pandemic.” Public Citizen’s President Robert Weissman issued the following statement:

“Jeff Zients failed and the world paid the price.

“Despite promises that the U.S. would be a ‘vaccine arsenal’ for the world, the United States and rich countries refused to share vaccine technology with developing countries and failed to deliver sufficient vaccines.

“The vaccination rate among low-income countries is 14 percent – about one-sixth the rate in rich nations. And even those data disguise the extent to which people in poorer countries are receiving less efficacious vaccines.

“The true toll of this failure will never be known, but at this point almost surely includes tens of millions of avoidable cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths from Covid. It also includes extreme disruption of poorer countries’ economies and societies.

“Responsibility for this failure is widely shared among nations, but the United States has a singular leadership role in global health; it has unique capacities and thus responsibilities; and a special duty to lead the world’s response. Under the leadership of Covid coordinator Jeff Zients, the United States failed.

“Zients refused to pay appropriate attention to global solutions to the global pandemic, because of political concerns or otherwise. And the Zients-led Covid response refused to challenge Big Pharma’s monopoly control, in the U.S. and globally, over technologies that relied crucially on public support. As a result, the United States and other rich countries failed to expand vaccine supply sufficient to meet global need. Without adequate supply, efforts to bolster low-income country distribution and delivery systems consequently have lagged and been similarly under-resourced.

“Thankfully, the White House belatedly requested $5 billion to support global delivery of vaccines. But the request did not arrive until several months after the need became evident. The lack of COVID funds in the Omnibus is a direct result of this neglect.

“The rest of the world is not an afterthought. The lives of people in other countries matter. Moreover, failure to stem the pandemic in other parts of the world has, repeatedly, led to more deaths and disease in the United States.

“Dr. Jha will face major challenges as he takes the helm of the U.S. Covid response, including a misguided perception that the ‘pandemic is behind us.’ As a seasoned public health expert and advocate, we look to Dr. Jha to lead the White House effort to fight the worldwide pandemic with far more vision and ambition than his predecessor.”