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Homeland Security

US Department of State

Briefing With State Department Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security Gayle E. Smith On Efforts To Support the Global Pandemic Response

Special Briefing
Gayle E. Smith, State Department Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security
Via Teleconference
April 30, 2021

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Thanks everyone for joining this call. As you know, this is an on-the-record briefing with the State Department coordinator for global COVID-19 response and health security – that’s Gayle Smith. As President Biden has made clear, the United States will continue to lead the world in confronting COVID-19. And Coordinator Smith is playing an integral role in those efforts. Most recently she’s been partnering with the interagency, with the private sector, and our foreign partners to assist India with the current COVID-19 outbreak there.

This call is on the record, as I mentioned, but the contents will be embargoed until the end of the call. And we will post a transcript on state.gov at the conclusion of the call. I’ll now turn it over to Coordinator Smith for some opening remarks, and then we’ll turn to your questions. So Gayle, over to you.

MS SMITH: Thank you so much, Ned, and hello to everybody who is on the line. Thank you for joining us. I am proud to be the newest member of a team that’s been working hard since January as the United States engages and in many cases re-engages in a global effort to turn the corner on this pandemic that as we know is affecting everyone all over the world, and connects all of us, because it affects us here in the United States. And in every country the virus moves freely amongst us. I’ve been very pleased since I’ve started to be able to work on a number of fronts. One of them is to build out our humanitarian global health response with our U.S. Agency for International Development as they seek to provide the assistance and capacity that’s needed in so – in so many countries to build up their own capacities to respond.

Also, I’m sure you’ve seen the announcement from the White House about the sharing of AstraZeneca vaccines. I think that’s a very good sign and very good move from the United States that will make a difference. With the crisis in India, we have as Ned suggests been very active on responding to that. Planes have landed with supplies. Our teams are closely engaged with the Government of India to see what else may be needed additionally. I’m happy to report also that the Secretary met with a number of CEOs earlier in the week, and the response from the American private sector and the American people has been extremely expansive and growing every day. So we are working to coordinate that.

Going forward, I will have an eye on how we can build up further – how can we – how we can work with our partners around the world to really being scaled for the response, and how importantly we can be prepared for the next pandemic, and as important, enable not only the United States but other countries around the world to prevent, detect, and respond to the kinds of crises we know are possible.

With that, I will stop there, and I’d be happy to take your questions.

MR PRICE: Excellent. Thank you. Operator, if you want to just repeat the instructions to ask a question.

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. You may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing 1, 0 again. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press 1, then 0.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much. We will first turn to Lalit Jah.

QUESTION: Can you give us an assessment of the situation in India right now, how serious it is, and what you visualize in the next few weeks based on what you’re hearing from experts, including both from CDC? And also can – a second question about the aid. Can you give us the next stage, and how – what kind of aid you are trying to send it to them immediately? Thank you.

MS SMITH: Sure. Thank you for the questions. I’m afraid that the crisis in India with the surge in the virus is indeed very, very serious. As you know, India’s reporting an increasing number of cases almost every day. And the crisis has not peaked yet. The way this happens in a surge is there’s a lag time between when people are infected, when they become sick, and when they may need care. So I think this is something that’s going to need urgent and persistent attention for some time. And that’s why we have in the immediate sense been focused on key supplies like oxygen support, protective medical gear, vaccine manufacturing supplies, diagnostic tests, and other things that are needed quite simply to respond to this immediate surge.

We’re also looking at other things that can be done to build up supply chains within India so there can be a more steady supply of all those things that are needed to manage this over time.

So I would just conclude by saying it’s very serious. Our intention is to remain fully engaged and do what we can to get through this crisis period.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Lalit. We’ll next go to Lara Jakes of The New York Times.

QUESTION: Nice to hear from you. Hope you’re well. Could you talk about the extent that the United States has seen foreigners come in on legal tourist visas to get the vaccine, particularly as vaccine dosages go unused here in the United States? How common is this, and is it encouraged?

MS SMITH: Lara, it’s nice to hear from you. I have to tell you that is not my writ. I am not overseeing the domestic vaccine campaign, so I would refer that question to others who may have a better answer for you.

MR PRICE: We’ll turn to the line of Simon Lewis from Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MS SMITH: Yes.

QUESTION: Yes, hi, Gayle. Thanks for doing this. You mentioned the AstraZeneca doses the White House announced will be eventually – start to be shared with other countries. I’m interested to know, when it gets time to take doses that the U.S. has but doesn’t necessarily need, how are you going to prioritize which countries they go to? Is there some process that you’ve got in place to field – I’m sure there are a lot of requests coming in from different countries. And I guess on top of that, we’ve heard a lot about India, also obviously Brazil is a huge – has huge COVID numbers. Are those two countries top of the list, or is there going to be some other criteria for assessing that?

MS SMITH: Sure. No, that’s a good question. And a couple things on that. First is that we’ve got to wait for there to be FDA approval before these vaccines can move. And you’re right in your suggestion that I must have heard from a lot of countries; there is huge demand for vaccine all over the world. To be honest, we have not made a decision yet as to the criteria for allocating those vaccines. I think we certainly will be making a decision based on what impact we can have on the spread of the virus where needs are most acute and what will be the most effective. We will certainly share those with you when that decision’s been made, but I don’t have an answer for you yet.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Katrina Manson with the FT.

QUESTION: Hello?

MR PRICE: Katrina, are you there?

(No response.)

We may have lost Katrina, so we will go to the line of Jennifer Hansler, from CNN.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. I was wondering if there are any plans to try to facilitate vaccines to Americans who are based overseas in countries where they may not have access yet. And secondly, are there any concerns about countries like China and Russia outpacing the U.S. in terms of sharing vaccines with others? Thank you.

MS SMITH: Good questions. Let me take the China/Russia one first. Both China and Russia are actively encouraging countries to buy their vaccines. As you know, the United States and a majority of countries around the world want to make sure that there are regulatory tests underway, WHO approval for safety and efficacy. I think frankly we expect them to market their vaccines. I can tell you that from the United States point of view, our intent is not to market or encourage vaccines based on any political policy, but because they’re the best means of ending a pandemic. I think our big concern is that COVAX and other facilities that have been built to really get vaccines out there at scale are able to do so in the near term. Our contributions to COVAX are a part of that plan. So again, our big hope is that we can have safe and efficacious vaccines out there at scale, and as quickly as possible.

MR PRICE: We’ll try going back to the line of Katrina Manson. Hope she is there.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me now?

MR PRICE: We can.

QUESTION: Oh, thank you so much for having me and doing this. I was hoping you might be able to do a little bit of a tick-tock on when India made its request for specific materials, assistance from you, and what is still outstanding. Is there anything that you are still working on and that India has continued to request?

MS SMITH: Yeah, thanks for the question. And I don’t know about the rest of you, sometimes I work very long hours and I have to ask myself what day it is. What I can tell you on the tick-tock is that immediately upon the initial discussions between the United States Government and India and as the Indian Government made its request for specific items, we had interagency teams working across the government, including through the weekend, all night Friday night, to do everything we could to address those requirements as quickly as possible. Most of those have been met. There are a couple of outstanding things that agencies are working on. But again, we’ve rotated these goods in on a steady rhythm so far so I think it’s been a pretty prompt response.

I think in terms of the longer term, there are things we are looking at about how we can buttress and reconnect supply chains so there can be greater scale of the provision of some of these supplies within India.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Sriram Lakshman from The Hindu.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. A question on – are you seeing any challenges? Now that the initial shipments have gone to India, there’s been some talk around working with the central government, the federal government in India versus local governments and NGOs. There’s also been some chatter around there being problems with taxes having to be paid on medicines to fight COVID-19. Can you describe to us challenges, if any, that are emerging in your supply of aid to India?

MS SMITH: Sure. We haven’t heard these challenges come from our team, which reports that the working relationships have been going very, very well. I can tell you that in a response of this scale, in an emergency of this type, there are often bumps in the road. We expect that. But our experience is we’ve been able to work through them.

I think part of the challenge is a part of a good news story if you will. We’ve seen, for example, in the United States the response from the CEOs of companies all over the country and from the American people has been massive, extensive, and continuing. I think you’re seeing support flow in from all over the world, including the United States.

And one of the challenges the teams on the ground, government included, is to immediately and effectively deploy that to multiple locations. I think people are working on that. In most of these cases, that smooths out after a short time and a regular rhythm steps in. But what we hear from our teams is we’ve got regular conversation with the Government of India at multiple levels, and thus far, we’ve been able to move our assistance in and move it out.

MR PRICE: We’ll take a couple final questions here. We’ll go to Dave Lawler of Axios. If you don’t see it, it’s rendered Abe Lawler in the system.

QUESTION: Oh, sorry. Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can. Go ahead.

MS SMITH: Yeah.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. So you mentioned that the idea was to get vaccines shared at scale as soon as possible. I just – I’m wondering kind of what the criteria are to determine when that will be possible beyond AstraZeneca. And your sense of the kind of sense of urgency around that and maybe concerns that the longer you wait, there will be costs to that. So just – yeah. When will that broader process begin, and what are your concerns if it doesn’t begin soon, I guess? Thanks.

MS SMITH: Well, sure. And to be clear, that process has already begun, and there are vaccines being both distributed all over the world through COVAX, to which we are the largest donor, but also in cases where governments are actually procuring vaccines. I think the thing we want to be very squarely focused on is how we can get additional vaccines in some markets so there can be coverage of more people in more countries more quickly, and that’s a function of several things. We’re looking at all the lines of effort that may well contribute to that.

Obviously, the need for vaccines is urgent and we hear that from countries all the time, and that’s part of the reason I came in and agreed to work with the Secretary and his team and across the government with other people who have been very active since January to make sure that the United States can do what we can do, but that we can also encourage other donors, our friends and allies, to step up and do what they can do.

So this is going to be a steady process for some time. It’s a huge operation, as you know. We are very, very, very fortunate to have vaccines available in such a quick time that work. It’s a much greater challenge to have sufficient supply, move them out all over, and make sure that we can work together to shorten the life span of the pandemic. But that’s a mission that we’re on and we’ll keep working it, and we will certainly keep you posted on our progress.

MR PRICE: Let’s go to Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: So as you know, WHO has this C-TAP program, the Technology Access Pool, which is aimed at producing more vaccine, and last year the Trump administration refused to go along with it. My question is: This year, will you guys go along with it and participate? And if not, what other – what alternative method do you see for increasing production and distribution of vaccines worldwide? Thanks.

MS SMITH: That’s a great question, and I can tell you that we’re actively looking at what the options are for increasing production. I hope that I will have more for you on that down the road. But I think you’re absolutely right to cite one of the key levers that needs to be pushed to get the kind of access and availability that we need. But hopefully, we’ll have more to share with you later on that.

MR PRICE: And let’s conclude with the line of Yashwant Raj.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) much. Can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

MS SMITH: Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. As part of the assistance, a team of CDC experts is supposed to go to India. Have they reached there? And where will they be stationed and how long do they expect to stay there?

MS SMITH: I’m afraid I can’t tell you the specifics on where they will be stationed and for how long. I do know that we have public health experts, including from CDC, I believe, in country at present and that CDC has been very actively working with its counterparts in country. We can try offline to get you the specific information about where other CDC personnel may be engaged.

I can tell you that CDC has been engaged with its counterparts since before the surge and has ramped up that engagement and will continue to do so as needed.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS SMITH: Sure.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone, for joining today’s call. Gayle, especially, thanks to you for sharing your time and expertise. Again, this call was on the record, and we will look for additional opportunities to connect you all with Gayle in the days and weeks ahead. So thank you very much.

MS SMITH: Thank you.



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