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U.N. to push for firm COVID vaccine commitments from richest nations at General Assembly

United Nations — The U.N. General Assembly officially kicked off this week. COVID-19 forced the biggest gathering of world leaders on the calendar to go virtual in 2020, but this year more than 100 presidents, prime ministers and others are set to give in-person speeches at the two-week event. 

More than a year and a half after the pandemic started, the coronavirus will still be front and center.   

This year’s General Assembly is being held in hybrid fashion, with some guests still attending virtually after the U.S. mission voiced concerns in August that it could become a super-spreader event in New York City. 

Notably, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have opted not to attend in person this year.  

But, adding a bit of the glamour that the General Assembly used to be known for, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is set to show up, and he’s bringing with him K-pop superstars BTS, in a bid to encourage the next generation to participate in global issues.    

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The General Debate of Heads of State and Government — the main event that includes leaders’ speeches — begins on September 21. They’ll have no shortage of pressing matters to discuss, from climate change to the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover, and the mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula. But no issue will be more urgent, the U.N. leadership says, than stemming the COVID-19 pandemic still raging out of control in so many places.  

It was clear even before the meetings began that both the U.N. and many of its member states were set to pressure the world’s richest nations to share more vaccine doses, and fast. 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres set the tone, noting in a recent preview of the General Assembly that the pandemic has “taken more than 4 million lives, is still killing nearly 10,000 people every day, and is circling the globe while a handful of rich countries stockpile vaccines.”     

Days before the assembly opened, the U.N. chief said he hoped the  General Debate would, “see action on a global vaccination plan, implemented by an emergency Task Force made up of countries that produce or can produce vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO), and its partners, and international financial institutions.”     

The task force, he said, “should work with pharmaceutical companies guaranteeing at least that production of vaccines will double, and ensure that vaccines reach seventy percent of the world’s population in the first half of 2022.”    

U.N General Assembly plenary meeting in NYC
U.N. General Assembly plenary meeting is  held as the president of the 75th Session of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, hands over the mission to the president of the 76th Session, Abdulla Shahid, center, at U.N. Headquarters in New York City on September 14, 2021.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The incoming president of the General Assembly, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, told CBS News during a press briefing that he would “do everything that the president of the General Assembly is empowered to do — everything — to make sure that we are able reach the target we are setting to get every single person to be vaccinated by the end of 2022… and I call upon leaders of all countries to come together and get this done.”  

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“We cannot accept that only 3% of Africa has yet been immunized, we can and will do better,” Shahid said.   

The White House has organized a virtual gathering to take place after President Biden’s first in-person address to the General Assembly on September 21. The “Global COVID-19 Summit: Ending the Pandemic and Building Back Better” is to take place the following day. 

“It’s really important for us to understand — not just as the U.S. government but all stakeholders to understand — what went right and what’s gone wrong in this pandemic,” Loyce Pace, director of the Office of Global Affairs of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said on Wednesday. She said all nations must “revisit accountability measures… so that we do better, not only in the future, but in real time.” 

Several U.N. delegations have told CBS News that they will participate in the White House summit, which has a list of targets, first reported by the Washington Post, including fully vaccinating at least 70% of the population of all countries by the next General Assembly in 2022.

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