December 3, 2021

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State Department Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security Gayle Smith On the Upcoming Virtual COVID-19 Ministerial

18 min read

Gayle E. Smith, Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security

Via Teleconference

MR ICE:  Thank you, Operator, and hello, everyone, and welcome to this afternoon’s briefing.  I’d like to take this opportunity here at the top to remind everyone that we are on the record today but that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.  After some initial comments from our briefer, we will take a few of your questions, and as our operator let us know, you can go ahead and jump in the queue now if you’d like.

As announced on November 5th, Secretary Blinken will host a virtual COVID-19 Ministerial tomorrow, November 10th, starting at 8:00 am Eastern Standard Time.  Today we are joined by Gayle Smith, Global Coordinator for COVID-19 Response and Health Security, who will provide information on tomorrow’s ministerial and take a few of your questions. 

As the Secretary said in his statement last Friday, the world has endured the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years.  We have seen more than 5 million deaths worldwide, devastated economies, and destroyed livelihoods.  New variants continue to emerge, complicating global efforts to end the pandemic. 

During this ministerial, the Secretary, along with his counterparts, will assess current efforts and build on the momentum generated by President Biden’s September COVID-19 Summit to end the pandemic and strengthen global health security for the future, including by setting shared targets along with accountability for meeting those targets.

We welcome efforts to ensure foreign ministers routinely discuss global health security as a central part of foreign policy, and we look forward to future opportunities for additional consultation and coordination on COVID-19 response and broader global health security issues.

And with that, it is my pleasure to turn it over to Coordinator Smith, who is joining us today to provide background on the ministerial and, as I said, to answer a few of your questions.  Coordinator Smith?

MS SMITH:  Thank you, JT, and thanks, everybody for joining us.  As JT has said, this all started with President Biden’s summit in September.  He had said earlier in the summer that the United States is prepared to lead in the response to this pandemic but that we don’t intend to do it alone.  That summit set out some very ambitious targets, brought the world together, called for and I think demonstrated political leadership, but also kicked off some momentum that will carry over well into 2022 or as long as it takes to end this pandemic.

It was announced at the summit that the Secretary of State would hold a ministerial.  That is, in fact, tomorrow.  It is following the G20 Summit and in the lead to another summit that will take place after the first of the year.

Let me just say a couple of things about why foreign ministers.  Foreign ministers have a clear role to play.  This is a crisis that transcends borders.  This is a health emergency, and importantly so, but this is also a national security – in fact, global security – issue.  It threatens all of us.  It has disrupted commerce.  It has disrupted travel.  It has dangerously impacted economies and the well-being of people all over the world.

Ministers will gather.  We have invited ministers from all regions as well as regional organizations to discuss two broad issues:  one on the current response, particularly vaccines –  how do we think about that in the short term, filling the gaps we have, meeting the ambitious targets – but also, for the longer term, making sure that there is more global production; and then they will also discuss some issues looking out ahead in terms of what we need with respect to the global health security architecture so that the world can prepare for and prevent future global health threats of this nature.

Let me stop there.  We’re happy to take some of your questions.  I would only remind folks this is the pre-brief before the ministerial, so I’ll answer as much as I can.  Thank you. 

MR ICE:  Thank you, Coordinator Smith.  Operator, would you please repeat the instructions for getting into the question queue?

OPERATOR:  Certainly.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0.  To remove yourself from the queue, you may press 1-0 again.  And we do ask that you please wait before asking your question to give us a moment to open up your line. 

MR ICE:  Okay, let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe, please.

OPERATOR:  And your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, Gayle, and Happy Tuesday.  My question to you is the – I’m happy to see diplomatic steps moving forward.  So these – the invitation for foreign ministers, was that an open invitation in general and waiting for them to accept, or did you pick specific countries on the African continent and are referring to?  And if so, how can we find the information on which countries these are?  Thanks.

MS SMITH:  Sure.  Thanks for that question, and nice to hear from you.  Happy Tuesday back to you, Pearl.  An important thing to note here:  It’s certainly our hope and intention that this will be the start of something and not just a single, freestanding ministerial.  The Secretary believes that foreign ministers need to engage and on a regular basis. 

What we’ve done in this case – there are a lot of foreign ministers around the world – is tried to gather a representative group of foreign ministers.  So that includes ministers from all regions and continents as well as regional organizations.  We’d be happy to provide more about who’s in attendance after the meeting itself.

But I will assure you, Pearl, Africa is represented, as are all other regions.  And we’re really pleased about that.

MR ICE:  Let’s go to the line of Simon Lewis.

OPERATOR:   And your line is open.  Please, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for doing this.  Yeah, just a couple of questions.  Just for the ministerial tomorrow, is there any specific kind of commitment that the U.S. is looking for from other countries?  I know this follows on from the meeting in September.  But is there something you can preview for us in terms of not necessarily numbers, but will we be asking countries to commit more, or will the – can we expect to see some kind of figures come out of this like that?

And sort of on the flip side, obviously countries who have less access to vaccines are going to be sort of asking countries like the U.S., countries that have more vaccines, I guess, to do more.  I wonder if you could summarize where you think the U.S. is in terms of delivering on the promises that President Biden made at the previous summit and the various pledges.  And how do you respond to – Doctors Without Borders, for example, earlier this – last month, sorry – was asking the U.S. to stop, as they say, hoarding excess doses?  There are a lot of doses that are still here, and people are getting third doses, so what’s the sort of response to those calls from outside groups?  Yeah.

MS SMITH:  Sure.  Happy to respond.  You’ve got a number of questions there.  Let me try to unpack them.

On your first point, as you know at the President’s summit, we put some pretty ambitious targets out there, and our expectation and our determination, in fact, is the world will meet – work together to meet those targets.  Those are the targets that we believe, together, will allow us to bring an end to the pandemic, so they’re vitally important.  They will certainly be reinforced in the discussions, and there will be discussion of that.

In terms of whether there will be announcements, there could be.  We have not set this up as a pledging session.  I would remind you, however, that there is another summit coming after the first of the year, and it’s going to be vitally important that collectively we mobilize not just the vaccines but the resources that are needed.

In terms of our own commitment at the summit, you’ll recall that President Biden announced an additional 500 million Pfizer doses, bringing us to one billion on that front.  To date we’ve delivered over 235 million doses to over a hundred countries.  We continue to regularly move doses to various countries. 

We are also working very hard – you’ll remember the second pillar of the summit dealt with both saving lives now but also readiness and uptake.  It’s important that these vaccines become vaccinations, so we are doubling down with our partners on ensuring that there is that capacity and capability to absorb and move these vaccines as quickly as possible.

We would like to see more countries sharing more doses on a faster basis.  We’re looking forward to working with countries on that to meet the gaps that we have, and we’re also pleased that we were recently able to work with the African Union and Moderna on a deal there in which we actually took late delivery of some doses that were purchased by the United States.

I think our view is that we have the vaccines, the resources, and the means to fill the gaps that exist and to meet this ambitious target.  We will do everything we can to fulfill our share of the responsibility, and our hope and expectation is that other countries will do the same.  We do expect a fair amount of discussion about this tomorrow and look forward to it.

MR ICE:  Let’s go to the line of Hye Jun Seo.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for taking my question.  With regards to North Korea, members of Congress sent a joint letter to President Biden yesterday urging to instruct the State Department to expeditiously respond to requests for special validation passports for humanitarian level.  So is State Department considering any changes to the mechanism for sending humanitarian aid to North Korea?  And is this issue going to be discussed during the ministerial and is there any updates on providing COVID vaccines to North Korea?  Thank you.

MS SMITH:  Yeah, I would – frankly, thanks for the question.  I’d refer you back to the department on that, on the department’s stance on humanitarian assistance and other issues pertaining to North Korea.  I don’t think there will be a particular discussion about that tomorrow, but I do think there will be discussion about how we can ensure that vaccines are widely available globally.  But I’d refer you to JT and my colleagues on the answer to your specific question on the letter yesterday.

MR ICE:  We will take that question back.

Let’s go to the line of Josh Wingrove, please.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Thank you very much.  Can you just – you mentioned the deal where the U.S. bumped back some of its Moderna order to accelerate delivery to the AU.  Can you talk about whether you will discuss whether there are sort of similar deals in the works at all, or is that sort of the main step in that regard as well?  And is this meeting more on vaccines or is it a discussion of therapeutics as well?  I’m thinking, of course, here the pills that are in process of seeking approval or authorization in some countries.

MS SMITH:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Is it vaccine only, or is it about therapeutics as well?  Thank you, Gayle.

MS SMITH:  Yeah, this Moderna arrangement was I think a very positive one and an initial one.  We will certainly let you know if there are going to be others of that nature.  It does make a difference and we’re very pleased to have been able to work that out with both Moderna but also with the African Union, which, as I think many of you know, has done a terrific job of also procuring doses for the continent in addition to what the international community is providing.

Frankly, we don’t anticipate a detailed discussion on therapeutics tomorrow, not because it isn’t important – it is extremely important.  It was discussed at the summit.  There will be other meetings and convenings, and we’re regularly engaged with our counterparts from various parts of the U.S. Government to the various parts of other governments on issues such as therapeutics, because it’s absolutely key.  And, as you know, the President highlighted it so that we’re focusing on getting vaccines out there, making sure that there is uptake, but also saving lives now.  It may come up tomorrow, but we’re not anticipating that it will be a major part of the discussion.

MR ICE:  Let’s go to the line of Joel Gehrke.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing this and taking my question.  A question about the invitation list:  I wonder, did you invite the Taiwanese foreign minister to participate in this conversation?  And do you – given that you mentioned that part of the point of this ministerial is to talk about the long-term prospects for improving the global health security architecture, I wonder:  Do you see this ministerial as the beginning of a format that could see the U.S. and allies and partners mitigate some of the problems that we saw at the World Health Organization or World Health Assembly with Taiwan’s exclusion?

MS SMITH:  We’d be happy to say more about the invite and participants list after the ministerial.  I think our thinking on the global health security architecture, first and foremost, is to create a forum of foreign ministers where they really begin deliberating on this in a dedicated manner.  It’s an issue that has come up in meetings of foreign ministers often on other topics.  There’s a lot to consider there.  And so this will be – to answer your question of is this the beginning of something – yes, our hope is certainly that this is the beginning of a much longer, extensive, and deliberate conversation, as the world grapples with some really big questions that we need to find answers to so that, again, we do not repeat what we’ve seen over the last two years and are prepared for – and can ideally prevent future health threats from becoming pandemics.

MR ICE:  We are going to have a hard stop today, but we’ve got – I think we’ve got time for at least one or two more questions.  Can we go to the line of Owen Churchill, please?

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hiya.  Thanks a lot for taking my call, my question.  Just a quick question about whether or not China’s expected to participate, whether they were invited, and if so, whether they agreed to participate.  And then secondly, a follow-up:  Is this primarily a discussion about responses to the pandemic, or are you anticipating discussions to also include those around origins, investigations, and efforts to get greater access to China in that respect?  Thank you.

MS SMITH:  Yeah.  Thanks for the questions.  And again, we’ll say more about the invitees and participants after the ministerial itself.  But I do want to point out one important point – is that it’s our view that to end the global pandemic, we’ve got to have global cooperation.  And in that spirit, we are inviting ministers from all over the world.  And again, we think that this is something that will grow and continue, and that that body will expand over time.

The meeting is focused now to discuss vaccines in the short and the medium-to-long term – how do we fill the gaps that we have now, meet the targets that President Biden has set out, but also how do we lay the ground for ensuring that the global vaccine architecture has much more geographic reach, the agility and the scope and scale that is needed, and to start some important discussions on the global health security architecture. 

Again, it’s the beginning of a series of discussions, so that’s the main focus for tomorrow. 

MR ICE:  Okay.  I’m looking at the clock, and unfortunately that’s all the time we have for today.  But I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who dialed in for today’s briefing.  And a special thank you to our briefer, Coordinator Gayle Smith, for joining us today.  With that, the call is ended and the embargo is lifted.  Have a good afternoon. 

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