The head of a flagship US medical academy has turned to an old friend in Europe to help raise billions of dollars for the international fight against coronavirus, as the Trump administration takes a back seat in the global response to the pandemic.
Victor Dzau, National Academy of Medicine president, appealed to Ursula von der Leyen, his European Commission counterpart, whom he first met at Stanford University in the 1990s, to boost global development and equitable distribution of fast and affordable testing, treatment and vaccines for Covid-19.
The effort by the senior US medic — whose organisation operates under congressional charter — was critical to the formation of a G20-endorsed fundraiser that is set to be hosted in Brussels on Monday, with the aim of raising an initial €7.5bn.
It highlights how the White House has kept a distance from some multilateral efforts to deal with the crisis, with President Donald Trump sparking widespread criticism after he decided to suspend US funding to the World Health Organization.
The Brussels event will also be a crucial test of commitments made by European leaders including Ms von der Leyen to help poor countries least equipped to deal with the pandemic.
“I am grateful to her because she is the first one who said ‘I’ll help you’,” Prof Dzau said of Ms von der Leyen, whom he added “gets it” and had the vision and gravitas to bring people together. “The initiative is to help all countries — including low-income countries — because the big focus is not only how you accelerate the development of vaccines, treatment and diagnostics but how do you have equitable distribution and access?,” he told the Financial Times.
The donors’ pledging conference is part of a wider international initiative launched recently by the WHO, world leaders and institutions including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — though not the US government.
It comes after a public warning by the commission president and other leaders from Europe and Africa that if the pandemic is not beaten in Africa, “it will return to haunt us all”.
Prof Dzau said his approach to Ms von der Leyen was spurred by conversations between himself and other international members of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent body convened by the WHO and World Bank in 2018 to prepare for global health crises.
The professor, who fled China with his family after the second world war when he was five years old, said he had initially tried to enlist the White House for the efforts but busy officials focused on the domestic response asked to reschedule the meeting.
Prof Dzau then thought of Ms von der Leyen, a former German defence minister and one-time researcher at Hanover Medical School. Prof Dzau first met her when she moved with her cardiologist husband Heiko to Stanford in the early 1990s. He subsequently published more than a dozen academic papers with Heiko and became friends with the couple.
“I said ‘let me call Ursula and see if she can help’,” he said of his call to the commission president in March. She then introduced the idea to the G20 group of world leaders and telephoned him after she won their support.
“It is very clear to me that we cannot get rid of this virus anywhere unless we defeat it everywhere,” Ms von der Leyen told the FT, stressing that the medical means to deal with it needed to be “available and affordable to all”.
“So we need to join forces and pool resources globally.”
The US has yet to say publicly whether it will contribute to the Brussels drive for funding, the allocation of which is due to be detailed on Monday. Prof Dzau, an emeritus professor at Duke University, said both Anthony Fauci, a leading mem of the White House coronavirus task force, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, had enthused in meetings with him about the potential for international scientific co-operation that would be made possible through international pledging.
Prof Dzau said the US National Academy of Medicine, a private non-profit body, had given expert consultations to the White House task force since the pandemic began and was feeding them science “24/7”.
“That is my primary job, but I also see our academy has to be global,” he added.