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The White House will host a second global COVID-19 summit

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

If we've learned anything these last two-plus years, it's COVID-19 really respects no political borders. That's why the White House is hosting a global COVID summit with world leaders starting Thursday. It's the second summit of its kind, and the goal is to get governments around the world to commit more attention and more resources to containing the virus. Joining us now is George Washington University professor of health policy and management, Jeff Levi. Professor, with all the public health challenges the U.S. has faced in fighting COVID - we haven't been perfect here in the U.S., so how much credibility does it have to lead a global relief planning effort?

JEFF LEVI: Well, I think that's a really good question. And I think when the administration probably planned this summit, it hoped that the president would already have in the hand a congressional appropriation to support a greater global effort. And I think that's going to be a challenge. I mean, the president, appropriately, is seeking a global commitment to solving a problem that's already caused almost 15 million excess deaths around the world. As you said, this virus does not recognize political borders, and especially as we worry about getting closer to normal and worry about variants, making sure that as many people across the world are treated and vaccinated will benefit the United States. But Congress hasn't been willing to put the money forward.

MARTINEZ: So you're saying that the U.S. financially isn't in a position where maybe they could be or should be leading a global effort?

LEVI: That's correct. I mean, the United - you know, this has been a challenge since the beginning of the pandemic when the Trump administration withdrew support for the World Health Organization. The Biden administration has stepped up and resumed that support. But, you know, we need to be supporting financially not just the purchase and donation of more doses of vaccine, but supporting the infrastructure that will make it possible to deliver those vaccines, supporting the public health capacity in countries around the world so we can respond to this pandemic and any future pandemics. And that takes appropriations from Congress. And it seems at each stage this is a part of the pandemic response that Congress seems willing to cut back.

MARTINEZ: Professor, what about our mindset as a country? Do you think we're there to be leading this thing? I mean, it just feels like America and Americans have moved on on this. They've had enough.

LEVI: Well, I - you know, I think in one sense, a lot of Americans have moved on. In another, we are the country with the largest number of cases. And so it's - and the more we want to move on, the more important it is to make sure that we are supporting global efforts to contain this pandemic. And certainly the public health community and the leadership in this administration has not moved on and understands the depth of this problem.

MARTINEZ: What do you see as the most significant obstacle blocking global cooperation on COVID?

LEVI: Well, I think the biggest issue from the U.S. perspective is putting money on the table, but it takes more than money. We have to be willing to invest long term in public health capacity around the world. And there are also policy issues. You know, we are willing to donate and pay for vaccines, but we're not supporting changes in patent rules and other laws that would make it easier for low- and middle-income countries to produce their own vaccine and become self-sufficient in dealing with public health problems. And those are complex policy issues. You know, we have a model for the United States stepping forward and doing this sort of thing. The PEPFAR program, which is - was started under President George W. Bush, that has really built capacity in a lot of countries to deal with the HIV pandemic in a systematic way, and that's actually been leveraged to some degree in COVID. That's the sort of long-term investment we need to be making globally.

MARTINEZ: That's George Washington University professor of health policy and management, Jeff Levi. Thank you very much.

LEVI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.