EU leads (an almost) global effort to fight coronavirus
Commission claims fundraising victory for pandemic fight even as total new money is unclear.
An EU-led fundraising extravaganza for COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostics fell just short of the European Commission’s €7.5 billion goal on Monday — even after organizers decided to count money already spent or allocated.
But an even bigger challenge for world leaders could be keeping a pledge to fight the pandemic without fighting each other.
Russia and the United States, one-time superpower rivals in science as well as politics, pointedly did not participate, highlighting the real risk that some wealthy countries could look to control vaccines or treatments to benefit their own citizens first.
Even as there were serious questions about how much of the €7.4 billion in pledges represented new resources to be deployed in the battle against the virus — including about the EU’s own €1.4 billion commitment — Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the fundraising event as a landmark victory in global cooperation.
“We have made it,” von der Leyen declared after playing emcee and hostess for nearly three hours of live and recorded video messages from leaders from virtually every corner of the globe.
“In the space of just a few hours, we have collectively pledged €7.4 billion.”
By one measure — when the money is counted in U.S. dollars — the Commission could claim to have exceeded its goal, which it had pegged at €7.5 billion, or $8 billion, and von der Leyen did just that. “The exchange rate is friendly to us — it is more than $8 billion,” she said. But even the dollar’s status as the world’s reference currency could not mask the irony given U.S. President Donald Trump’s reluctance to join the EU’s global money-raising campaign.
In any event, nearly all of the leaders acknowledged that far more money would be needed down the line, especially when the time comes to manufacture and distribute a vaccine.
And the precise location of the event’s metaphorical finish-line was less of a question than the overall approach to counting the biggest pledges. At a briefing last week, senior Commission officials announced that they had decided that national government expenditures going back to January would qualify toward the overall goal.
Then, during Monday’s event, officials seemed to also start counting loan guarantees and potentially other financing that would generally not meet the traditional definition of a “donation” for medical research.
The EU’s own €1.4 billion “pledge” included a “reprioritization” of €600 million already budgeted from the Horizon 2020 research program; €80 million from existing disaster management funds; and €400 million in loan guarantees.
A global effort
In a broader sense, though, there was enormous political symbolism in the event, which featured the leaders of nations large and small coming together to voice solidarity in the fight against the disease, along with support from international figures like U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The long roster of leaders who spoke live or sent video messages included all of the G7 except for Trump — French President Emmanuel Macron; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe; and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — some royals, including King Abdullah of Jordan and Prince Albert of Monaco; as well as others, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Von der Leyen singled out Macron as a particular force in pushing for the international effort. And the French president, who announced a €500 million pledge, said leaders would not be able to justify anything but a coordinated push to fight the disease.
“No one would understand us wasting time, no one would understand us dispersing the money, no one would understand why the day we have a vaccine somewhere we wouldn’t give ourselves the ability to produce it as quickly as possible for everyone, everywhere in the planet,” Macron said.
Norwegian Prime Minster Erna Solberg came forward with the single biggest national pledge of the day, totaling $1.2 billion for vaccine efforts. Solberg was also one of several leaders to announce additional, new financing for the WHO — a symbolic retort to Trump who has criticized the organization and threatened to cut off U.S. funding.
Several of the leaders voiced optimism about the multilateral pledging effort. “This common spirit is our best defense against the virus,” European Council President Charles Michel said. “The picture is not all bleak. Across history, human beings have displayed a surprising capacity to innovate and bounce back from disaster.”
Private foundation partners of the event included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged an additional $50 million to the COVID-19 fight on Monday, and the Wellcome Trust, which pledged another $50 million.
While the fundraising event was portrayed partly as an effort to guarantee that developing countries are not left out while rich nations benefit from treatments and vaccines, some global public health experts seem particularly worried that wealthier nations could end up fighting among themselves, as leaders face pressure to protect their own citizens. And they seem eager to avoid a repeat of the chaos at the start of the pandemic, which saw countries unilaterally shut borders and hoard protective equipment.
Melinda Gates, who spoke on the behalf of the foundation led by her and her Microsoft founder husband, has said that it is crucial a vaccine is directed first to frontline healthcare workers worldwide.
In a video message to the pledging event, she called on leaders to work together. “For life to get back to normal, we also need to call on our common humanity,” Gates said. “Viruses don’t obey borders or customs laws. They don’t care about what nationality you are.”
Italy’s Conte, whose country has had the most deaths from coronavirus in the EU, issued a similarly pointed warning. “Faced with an unprecedented global threat, the international community has only one effective option to defeat the virus: cooperation,” he said.
In a video message, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalized after being infected with the coronavirus, said: “None of us can succeed alone.” And he called for “developing and mass-producing a vaccine.”
But for all the rhetorical resolve, there were also questions about how any new money would be managed in the weeks and months ahead.
Organizers were adamant about not creating any new structure to administer the funds, so any new money will go directly to a small group of agencies leading collaborative efforts to develop vaccines and medicines, including the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) based in Oslo, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, based in Geneva.
Even champions of the global effort voiced some concerns that donors would follow through and the money would be deployed as expected.
“This is a good start, but we need to see the full detail of these commitments,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement. “This funding needs to be made available immediately for the urgent research that is needed and to ensure the world has capacity to make diagnostics, treatments and vaccines available on an equitable basis to the world, to everyone.”
Inger Ashing, chief executive of Save the Children, issued a statement praising the pledging effort but also urging rigorous accounting and accountability. “The EU must be vigilant in guarding against double counting of commitments,” Ashing said.
The Trump administration’s unwillingness to join the effort raised concern worldwide about his intentions, and also questions in Washington where reporters pressed for an explanation.
In anticipation, the State Department issued a fact sheet Monday laying out U.S. efforts to support research and deliver aid, but during a briefing, officials repeatedly sidestepped questions about why the United States didn’t participate.
At one point when an official claimed to have answered the question, a reporter shot back: “You have not provided the answer, which is why we’ve asked it four times.”
The pledge-a-thon was not without its glitches and weird moments. At one point, a video feed of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković from Zagreb had no audio connection.
At another point, announcing new loan guarantees from the EU, the European Investment Bank and France, von der Leyen got tied up in all those zeros. “That adds up to one billion fifty-four, one billion fifty-four thous … million euros in loans,” she said. “A long figure! So one, point, five, four billion euros, we had it! — a loan finance for the fight against COVID-19.”
At the very end, von der Leyen also announced a $1 million pledge from Madonna.
“That shows that the global response most also include social society, civil society and the global community of citizens,” von der Leyen said, adding: “Today we can truly say the world is united against the coronavirus. And the world will win.”
Lili Bayer, Jillian Deutsch, Rym Momtaz, Carlo Martuscelli, Sarah Wheaton and Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.