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Transcript: Special Background Briefing via Telephone – Senior Administration Official
April 23, 2020

Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion.

Before we begin today’s briefing, I would like to establish the ground rules.  This briefing is provided on background.  Attribution is to a senior U.S. Government official.  The official’s remarks may be quoted directly or paraphrased, but must be attributed to a senior U.S. Government official.  The contents of the call are embargoed until its completion.

Today, we are very pleased to be joined by a senior U.S. Government official from the National Security Council who will discuss the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa.  We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from our speaker and then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 45 minutes.

As a reminder, today’s call is on background.  And with that, I will turn it over to our speaker.  Our senior U.S. Government official, please deliver your opening remarks.

Senior Administration Official:  Good morning and thank you so much for that introduction.  I’d like to thank all of you for joining the call today.  First, I want to say that I hope that you and your loved ones are doing all right at this time, at the time of a time of a global pandemic which we’re all undergoing and surviving and hoping that we will get through this together, and with great encouragement and hope and all of your help, we will.

The American people have a deep and abiding love of Africa and the people of Africa, and we show it in ways that are often humble, personal, and direct.  In fact, American citizens have given more in both formal government-to-government assistance and informal volunteer-based money and energy than to any other part of the world.  This isn’t some kind of centralized government scheme; it’s who we are as a people and it represents a uniquely American desire to share the blessings of freedom and of economic independence with the continent from which many of our citizens and their ancestors came.  And yet, the media rarely talks about the good work that we’re doing across the continent – the decades of work actually to educate, train, feed, vaccinate, and invest of the people of Africa in order to build a brighter future.

I’d like to share with you some of the facts and figures that illustrate the generations of good work being done by the Americans to help the people of Africa.  I would also like to share with you President Trump’s vision for a strong and prosperous and healthy Africa.  Every day, new U.S. technical and material assistance arrives in hospitals and labs around Africa.  These efforts in turn build a decades-long foundation of American expertise, generosity, and planning that is unmatched in history.  The United States has committed more than $100 billion over the past 20 years to support public health on the African continent – by far the largest donor nation.  Over 3,000 laboratories in African countries are supported with U.S. assistance funds, including 28 national reference labs providing a strong foundation for coronavirus testing and response.  In addition, 285,000 health care workers have been trained in the past 17 years across the continent.

The United States has spent 900 million annually on physical lab infrastructure in recent years to build and maintain this network, demonstrating our ongoing commitment to partnership with African nations in the critical area of public health.  The President has a bold vision for eradicating AIDS and it is reflected in his support for Africa.  The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, as many of you know, has been one of the major sources of U.S. assistance funding to African public health as well as providing substantial funding in other regions.  PEPFAR’s 85 billion global investment, of which 75 billion has been spent in Africa, has saved more than 18 million lives in the last 17 years.

Over seven – 15.7 million people are in life-saving antiviral treatment due to PEPFAR.  Over 2.6 million babies of HIV-positive mothers have been born HIV-free thanks to PEPFAR.  In the past decade, PEPFAR has also helped train 280,000 health care workers, almost all of whom are in Africa.  As of September 30th, 2019, PEPFAR supports over 15 million men, women, and children with the live-saving antiviral therapy in Africa.  PEPFAR also supports nearly 6.2 million orphans, vulnerable children, and their caregivers in Africa so that they can survive and thrive.

Recent data show that PEPFAR invests – investments have put several African countries on pace to achieve HIV epidemic control by the end of the year.  PEPFAR’s efforts, too, have improved the ability of African countries with sizable HIV burdens to swiftly address other outbreaks, such as Ebola, avian flu, cholera, and has strengthened the platform for global health security and protecting America’s borders.

And I think that’s a very important point to make with regard to building the platform for global health security.  And those investments that have taken place over the last 20 years have built the foundation for Africa to begin to battle this coronavirus.  In fact, Dr. Deborah Birx, who many of you have heard of, she is the coordinator for the COVID virus here in the United States.  She works for the President and Vice President of the United States.  And Dr. Debbie Birx had spent three weeks in Africa, actually, right before coming here to take on this new position.  She has focused on Africa for the last 20 years, on the PEPFAR program as head of that, so she has a deep understanding of the needs of Africa, and the President is very, very committed to supporting the work in Africa as we continue to struggle and do this together.

The President has also a bold agenda for saving lives in Africa against malaria, Ebola, avian flu, cholera, and other outbreaks.  Together with the global malaria community, the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, PMI, has helped save more than 7 million lives and prevented more than a billion cases of Malaria since 2000.  In countries where PMI operates, there has been a 60 percent decline in malaria deaths – in death rates since 2006.  The U.S. support for global polio eradication has risen from 134 million in Fiscal Year 2009 to 235 million in Fiscal Year 2019.  Again, the United States has been a leader in global polio eradication, having developed the first vaccine over 50 years ago.

The United States continues to partner with Africa Centers for Disease Control and national public health institutions in Africa to support capacity-building preparation in response to the ongoing global health public emergency related to coronavirus.  In fact, I have a weekly call with Africa CDC and the team that we have at the AU to talk about what’s going on in the African continent and what the current needs are, so that’s been very helpful in getting the information we need to help support your – our response and your response to COVID.

Our help is much more than money and supplies; it’s the experts that we have deployed worldwide and those still conducting tutorials via video conference today.  It’s the doctors and the public health professionals that have been trained, and thanks to U.S. money and educational institutions that have done this.  It’s the supply chains that we keep open and moving for U.S. companies producing and distributing high-quality, critical medical supplies around the world.

It’s not just our government leading; we also have an all-of-America approach.  Businesses, NGOs, and faith-based organizations have given.  Together, Americans have provided nearly 3 billion in donations and assistance overseas in addition to what the U.S. Government has provided.

We will continue to work closely with our African partners to meet the emergency of this pandemic and to protect the health security of the American homeland and of African states.

Moderator:  Okay, ma’am, that concludes [Senior Administration Official]’s opening remarks.  We’ll go ahead and turn it over.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa.

For those of you listening to the call in French, we have received some of your questions submitted in advance by email and you may continue to submit your questions in English via email to AFMediaHub@state.gov.

Our first question will go to Julia Steers of Vice News.  Her question is, “Last week on a press call, WHO’s Dr. Moeti said that the U.S. pullback in funding to WHO will affect the fight against diseases like polio, malaria, and AIDS.  While you’ve noted in these press materials that USAID and CDC, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, are contributing to anti-COVID efforts and other disease-fighting efforts, how does the U.S. defend pulling back funding from WHO, leaving the organization less capable of adequately combatting diseases that the U.S. has been committed to fighting for years?”

Senior Administration Official:  Thank you for that question.  I want to just say that the U.S. funding to WHO to eradicate the polio disease is – that is misleading and it’s wrong, what she had to say.  Our actions to hold the WHO accountable in no way diminishes the U.S. commitment to eradicating polio, as you just heard me describe our investment that we’ve made over decades to the eradication of polio.  Our goal has been and will remain the eradication of polio across the globe, including Africa.

The recent remarks by Dr. Moeti that the Trump administration’s decision to place a hold on funding to the WHO will endanger lives in Africa is wrong and it’s misleading.  Decades of U.S. leadership, generosity, and expertise have been essential in reducing cases of polio to historically low levels.  Anyone who doubts this commitment should look at our track record.  The United States is the world’s largest contributor to global public health of any single nation.  Since 2001, the United States has given over 142 billion to global health assistance.  U.S. support for global polio eradication, as I just mentioned, has gone from 134 million in 2009 to 234 million in 2019.

 Moderator:  Next question, please.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question goes to Marlene Panara from Le Point Afrique.  “Do you think African governments will reconsider health budgets after the COVID-19 crisis?”

Senior Administration Official:  I absolutely think that they, the governments, will do that.  While they’ve received a tremendous amount of assistance over the years, I think it’s time that African governments make a decision to invest more in health care.  Africa has 16 percent of the world’s population and yet only 1 percent of spending on global health, on their own health care systems, on average on the African continent, and I think that they’ll see the critical importance of really focusing on their own people’s health care and health care delivery, particularly after COVID.

Moderator:  The next question goes to Michael Gwasira of the HealthTimes in Zimbabwe.  “Is the United States supporting any research efforts to identify a coronavirus vaccine in Africa?”

Senior Administration Official:  Thank you for that question.  Yes, we do have an all-of-America approach.  Currently we are working here on a vaccine – CDC, NIH are working – but as I said, everyone is working towards finding the right therapeutics and a vaccine.  We have world-renowned experts in government that are working on it, our innovative companies, and our ongoing collaboration with the scientific community around the world.  Our work with our partners in the G7, for example, is another area where we continue to build and search for this vaccine.

The bottom line is that President Trump is pushing hard to advance research and develop vaccines, treatments, and therapeutics for COVID-19.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next question goes to Pearl Matibe.  Pearl, are you on the line?

Question:  Yes, I’m on the line.  Thank you very much.  This is Pearl; I’m out here, based in Washington.  So I have a question for you:  On April 9th, the Government of the United Kingdom has said, and I quote, “We’ve just announced nearly $44 million, which makes us the biggest contributor to the COVID-19 response here in Zimbabwe.”  My question to you is:  They also do offer cash transfers to the poorest and most vulnerable communities.  Are you able to do the same for Zimbabwean doctors who are not motivated since they only receive a mere $30 as a risk allowance for putting themselves at risk as health care workers?  Are you able to do cash transfers as the UK is doing through WFP?  And also, why did you not help Sierra Leone with any COVID-19 assistance funding earlier, as you did with Ethiopia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe?  Thank you.

Senior Administration Official:  Thank you very much for that question.  For Zimbabwe, we’ll definitely look into that.  I wasn’t familiar with that particular issue on the cash transfer, but we’ll be happy to look into that.

With regard to Sierra Leone, the United States so far has given 400 million in health assistance – 400,000 in health assistance to address the outbreak.  Sierra Leone, as a matter of fact, was given 5.2 billion in total assistance, including 260 million in health assistance, over the past 20 years.  So we will continue to focus on our giving to Sierra Leone.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question goes to Nick Turse of The Intercept.

Question:  Thanks for taking the call today.  UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly called for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but some belligerents in conflicts on the African continent have continued or actually increased their attacks during the pandemic.  Can you comment on how this is affecting health assistance in response to COVID-19?  Over.

Moderator:  I apologize.

Moderator:  [Moderator], do you want [inaudible] – okay.

Moderator:  Yes, I – I apologize.  There was a small break.  I think we got the question.  Can you please say that again, sir?

Question:  Yes.  UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly appealed for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but some belligerents in conflicts on the African continent have continued or even increased their attacks during the pandemic.  Can you comment on how this is affecting health assistance in response to COVID-19?

Senior Administration Official:  Sure.  Of course, anytime there is conflict in a zone, it always complicates the delivery of goods.  We’re also focused on our own national security issues, so we’re able to do both at once.  I will say just I know how complicated it is; I spent a year and a half in a war zone and working with UNICEF on emergency response.  So there are so many things to be looking at in terms of logistics and the safety of the people, so oftentimes you have that tradeoff, which is very difficult for the people on the ground to make.

So we’re hoping that people will adhere to the secretary-general and other leaders’ call for a ceasefire, but we do understand the complications.

Moderator:  The next question – the next question goes to Anna, Cara, of the Associated Press.  Anna?

Question:  Hi, yes.  Hi, yes, thank you for this.  How many ventilators, oxygen concentrators, and coronavirus test kits have been provided to African nations since this pandemic began?

Senior Administration Official:  Thank you.  Actually, our focus thus far has actually been on – we’ve spent almost a billion dollars that’s gone out the door to Africa thus far, across the continent.  A lot of it has been focused on water and sanitation, communication.  What we’ve seen for our own selves and in many other countries is oftentimes, where there’s weak health systems or you don’t have those things – clearly you’ve seen it in the United States in areas where we have lacked the ventilators and we’ve tried to get them – no person has been, thus far, without the ventilators and the needs that they have, but at the same time, it’s important that every person participate in this, from washing hands to social distancing.  And so we have focused on that in our immediate response to Africa.  We are also looking at the PPE and the ventilator needs, and we’ll be making those decisions very quickly as a matter of fact.  But as I said, we’ve gotten a lot of the basics out there and to the labs, and even more training that we’ve done with the platforms that already exist – PMI and PEPFAR.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We have another question from a special – “How is the U.S. working to protect its own national interest in flattening the COVID-19 curve and ensuring its role as a global responder?”

Senior Administration Official:  So in terms of the United States, we cut off travel immediately from China and we then cut off – President Trump cut off travel coming in from Europe.  Our focus has been, obviously, to bring down the curve, and we’ve done everything – as you can see how this virus moves along, we got hit very hard in the state of Washington and then in the state of New York, then it popped up in Louisiana.  So there’s – it’s coming at different times and in waves, and if people take the measures that they need in order to shelter at home as well as teleworking, washing hands, the sanitation, stores are closed – we’re in a basic lockdown over here in the United States, and so I really think that has helped to bring down the curve, and we’re looking at opening our own economy soon but not without – President Trump confers with the doctors every day and the experts in the United States to determine, state by state and working with the governors, how that’s going to go.

In terms of the global response, again, as I said, we haven’t stopped.  We were hit very hard with COVID-19, but the United States at the same time was sending things abroad to other countries.  We’re also sharing our experiences as we’re going through it ourselves.  And unfortunately, had this disease been recognized by the WHO and had the Chinese shared this information when they had it, none of us would be in this place today.  So it’s an extremely unfortunate situation.  There has been a lack of transparency in this, and that is why the United States is moving very aggressively in our own country and working to help other countries as well.

Moderator:  Thank you.  I know you said just one more question, if you would allow us to ask one from our contacts at Radio France International, Stanislas Ndayishimiye.  He says that, “You say that the United States gave the largest medical assistance in Africa.  Is it through the WHO contribution, which is now suspended?”

Senior U.S. Government official?

Moderator:  Yes, thank you.

Senior Administration Official:  Yeah.  So actually the WHO funding is a very – it’s actually a very small portion of what the United States gives in global health assistance to Africa and around the world.  It’s about three to four hundred million dollars per year; that’s in both assessed and voluntary contributions.  The majority of our funds go out the door through the programs that we have – as I said, PEPFAR, PMI.  We give a tremendous amount to international NGOs, such as the Red Cross.  We also give to UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, and a number of other faith-based organizations.

So our health expenditures per year are extraordinary.  As I said, thus far on COVID alone it’s been nearly a billion dollars that’s gone out the door, and there is a couple of other billions on the way.  So the WHO is a small amount – I mean it’s a large amount, we’re by far the largest giver to WHO by a landslide, but again, compared to the rest of our giving it’s not a large proportion.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Thank you, everyone, for participating.  And we’d like to ask our speaker if she has any final words.

Senior Administration Official:  The only thing I want to say is, once again, I just want to thank everybody for joining the call today.  We’re wishing all of you the very, very best, and the White House, President Trump, and the American people are very interested in helping Africa and Africans and the people around the world.  So we’ll be working hand in hand as we go through this together, and thank you once again for your participation.

Moderator:  Thank you.  As we close, I’d like to repeat again that this call has been on background, and the rules being that this official’s remarks, the remarks that you heard today, may be quoted directly or paraphrased but must be attributed to a senior U.S. Government official.

With that we conclude today’s call.  I want to thank our senior USG official for joining us and all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov.  Thank you.

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