THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing on Secretary Blinken’s COVID-19 Ministerial. Our briefer today is Gayle Smith, Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security at the U.S. Department of State, who will give a readout of the ministerial. This briefing is on the record, and a transcript will be published later today. Coordinator Smith will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions. And with that, I will pass it over to Coordinator Smith. Over to you.
MS SMITH: Thank you very much, and thank you, everybody, for joining us. We have just come out of the first ministerial. Foreign ministers gathered from all regions of the world, along with regional organizations, to focus deliberately on the global COVID pandemic and on global health security in the long term.
Significantly, this is the first time foreign ministers have met from around the world specifically and exclusively on this topic. We’re very pleased that there was a great deal of enthusiasm from ministers all over the world about the meeting itself and an agreement that these consultations should continue. Secretary Blinken made clear that he is ready to convene another round with foreign ministers before the summit, which President Biden announced in September that there would be another summit after the first of the year.
This is an opportunity for foreign ministers to do a few things. And I’ll just say a few things, and then turn it over to you for questions. One is to make sure that the world understands two critical things. The first is that while this is a global health emergency, this is also a security crisis, an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and thus demands that yes indeed we have our health ministers and experts on board, we have our finance ministers on board given the impacts on the economy, but we absolutely must also have our foreign ministers on board given their level of political leadership and their role in forging international cooperation.
And this is the second, I think, common underlying theme, which is that ending a global pandemic and preparing the world so that we can prevent and effectively respond more effectively than this time to future threats requires genuine global cooperation. It requires joining forces where we can, debating the issues, discussing and forging the agreements we need to make sure that all of our people are safe.
So it was extremely positive in that regard. We hade some opening comments that set the stage about the economic impact, the global health impact, and the opportunities for increased collaboration. A fair amount of the discussion was on vaccines, but in multiple ways – first and foremost, filling the vaccine gap to meet the ambitious WHO targets, which President Biden reinforced in his summit in September; vaccine principles – what are the common principles to which we can all agree that should guide how we go forward from this point; and third and important, a really big topic of interest to everyone is how we expand global vaccine production, and indeed the production of the whole range of medical supplies.
There was also discussion of some of the longer term issues in front of us. How do we make sure that there is sustained financing to build the capacity of all countries to prevent, detect, and respond to pandemics and other health threats? How do we build on regional collaboration? We’ve seen cases where that’s been extremely effective. The African Union has done an extraordinary job of forging cooperation on strategy, medical supplies, and supply chain, and also aggregating capital by vaccines. So that, we think, is a key building block, and there’s a lot of support for that. We also discussed what forums are needed for bringing together the political leadership that we must have if we’re together, again, going to end this pandemic and prevent future crises of this kind.
Let me stop there; I’m happy to take questions. And again, I’m really pleased that all of you were able to join us.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Coordinator Smith. We’ll take the first question from Stacy Hsu from Central News Agency, Taiwan. Stacy, please unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MS SMITH: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you for taking my question. I have a question about the specific number of attendees attending this year’s meeting. And are you seeking to expand that number in the future? And secondly, we saw Chinese ambassador to the U.S. attended this meeting today, but there was no – but Taiwan wasn’t invited. And can you tell us why? And was it because of objections from the Chinese side? Thank you.
MS SMITH: Sure, happy to take that. We had close to 40 participants, foreign ministers. We had some observers, but we also importantly had the heads of key regional organizations. Because again, as I said earlier, we think that that’s really key.
Our intention was to make sure that we had speakers from all regions. As you know, we had very, very extensive participation at the President’s summit. And to your point, yes, the intention is absolutely that this needs to be an expanded group over time. As I said, the Secretary is committed to convening foreign ministers again. We hope that hosts will rotate. But if we’re going to defeat this pandemic and build the architecture and the systems we need, it’s going to take everybody. So it’s absolutely our intent to make sure that this process is a fully inclusive one.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, you can raise your hand using the “raise hand” function or submit in the chat.
We’ll now go to Pearl Matibe from Power FM in South Africa. Pearl.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, and good morning, Gayle. Gayle, I’ve been listening intently both to the congressional healing – hearing on the Hill that you had last week heading into this COVID-19 Ministerial. And as the top diplomat responsible for coordinating it all, it must entail working with Secretary Blinken. I’d imagine you’ve witnessed his leadership style. So since April and as you prepared for this COVID ministerial, can you talk on perhaps three traits of America’s Secretary of State in your vaccine diplomacy so we can begin to understand the top diplomat that’s – that you’re working with here at the State Department?
MS SMITH: Sure. Pearl, that’s a great question, and it’s good to hear from you. And I’ll say a couple of things. I’ve had the honor of knowing Secretary Blinken for many, many, many years now and to have worked with him for a long time. I’d say a few things. He is incredibly open-minded and engaging. So he’s got one of those vital natural diplomatic skills of soliciting other people’s views, no shyness about sharing his own, but really working towards consensus.
Second, with respect to the pandemic, he is paying very, very, very close attention to all dimensions of it. He’s extremely conversant. He’s extremely engaged. He is following it closely and, in fact, being quite active. This was his initiative to pull foreign ministers together, and I think we will see continued leadership from him.
The third point is that he is, as one must be as Secretary of State, a realist, but he also has a fundamental belief in the fact that all of us – again, if we work together, if we mobilize the tools, the resources, and importantly the political capital that we need, that we can in fact end this pandemic. So he’s ambitious in that aspiration but rooted in the facts that we actually can do it and I think absolutely determined to ensure that we do.
And I’ll just say he’s a pleasure to work with.
QUESTION: Thank you. If there’s an opportunity, I’d like to ask a follow-up question on this.
MODERATOR: Go ahead, Pearl.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Gayle, thank you so much on that. If I can continue to press on a little bit threaded in with the vaccine diplomacy and what you shared regarding Secretary Blinken. And so at the table, at the – and in your negotiations, and then you were trying to lead by example for the rest of the world, are you seeing indigenous African women at the table in your vaccine diplomacy efforts sitting maybe as counterparts in your ramp-up discussions at all? I’m trying to understand if there’s any diversity at the decision-making table.
MS SMITH: Yeah.
QUESTION: I have a second part question which is: Given the leadership with your efforts here diplomatically and tied into part of a question you were asked in your testimony on the Hill, this – what strategic difference between China and Russia versus what the United States is doing – I know you spoke about the fact that your efforts are resonating. But my question would be I’m not seeing much advancing of the message that – to what extent does that resonance or to what extent is that resonance successful —
MS SMITH: Well, that – yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you, Gayle.
MS SMITH: Let me may, if I – let me address those, Pearl, and good questions. I’m getting to your second one first a little bit. You used the phrase “vaccine diplomacy.” We actually don’t use that phrase. Our very strong view is that vaccines are nonpolitical, there are no political strings attached, they are the tools along with others that will enable us to end the pandemic so that the vaccines we are sharing, the vaccines that we purchased and provided to COVAX, those are provided for the global common good and for public health.
And one of the things that we have raised with foreign ministers is the notion of lining up behind a set of principles that would assert, among other things, that fact that vaccines, again, should be provided with no political strings attached. And I think that does resonate and that’s just an important distinction to make. Again, this is a global health crisis that we’re in and we’ve got the tools and we need to use them.
I think to your point on diversity and particularly gender diversity, we did hear from a range of African foreign ministers today – I will say overwhelming majority of them were women – and I think that we heard some perspectives that were absolutely vital. The issue of ensuring that women play a role not only, as you rightly say, in the decision-making, but that we are also keeping a clear and focused eye on the acute impact of the pandemic and all of the shadow pandemics – economic, health, education and otherwise – have on them.
I would never say that we’re all the way there, Pearl. You’ve known me long enough to know that we’ve always got a lot of work to do. But I think we saw great evidence today of the power of leadership by women.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Coordinator Smith. I don’t see any other hands raised or questions in the chat, so with that we will conclude today’s – oh, Pearl, can we follow up with you on email if you have a follow-up on that?
QUESTION: Yeah, if I can sneak in a few more and impede on Gayle’s time? I’m sure she’s extremely busy. But I wondered about – again, on mobilizing this leadership. Because I believe maybe this event that you’re having and future events down the road after this ministerial, I wonder what those might be. But which – which pool of countries might you be having a challenge with in the world in trying to mobilize? And are those in Africa? And is there any long-term training or education to increase the human capacity to combat those future pandemics? Like how are people on the continent being future trained so that whatever might come in the future, there will be a capacity to – and we have the human capacity to handle those things?
MS SMITH: Yeah, yeah. And let me, if I may, Pearl, try to answer these quickly. In terms of future events, you heard President Biden say at the summit in September that there will be another summit after the 1st of the year. The Secretary will convene foreign secretaries, foreign ministers again. He also announced that Ambassador Power, the administrator of USAID, will be convening her counterparts. Again, our intention is to use our leadership to bring people together to forge agreement on tangible actions that we can take on both fronts: ending the pandemic and preparing for the future.
And I think what they’re finding – what we’re finding is that sure, there are some countries that may have differences on some things, but I think this morning’s conversation was one that drove home the point that because this is a challenge that affects every single country on the planet, the desire is overwhelmingly for improved coordination and cooperation and joining forces to respond.
Issues of training and capacity building came up today. These are constantly on our radar and that of others. And I think there is a strong agreement that one of the things we absolutely must do if we want to have global health security over time is build the capacity of all countries to prevent, detect, and respond to these kinds of threats. That means strengthening institutions, it means technical capabilities, but it also, and importantly to your point, Pearl, means training people and building the kind of workforce and cadre that we all need in each of our countries to make sure that we and all of our citizens are safe. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take one more question from Alex Raufoglu, Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. Alex.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon, can you hear me?
MS SMITH: Yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you, Jen, and Coordinator Smith, thank you so much for making yourself available for us today. I have two questions. One is rather technical; let me start with that. As you know, the COVID cases hit record high these days in the South Caucasus. I represent Azerbaijan, but all three Caucasian countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – are in the CDC’s Level 4 risk list, and the Eastern European countries imposed new curbs.
The Secretary made it clear today that the administration considers health security a global national security. Given that, I’m wondering if you are planning to extend the invitation to South Caucasian countries in the near future. So will you have a second summit sometime soon? And if so, what will be the parameters to – I mean, what is required from those countries I say to get into – to get invited to those future events?
My second question: With the mass rollout of vaccines, while the U.S. and other countries have entered a new, hopeful phase – that’s – that was my take from today’s discussion – in the race to control the outbreak and get ahead of evolving variants, the public trust and confidence in science and particularly health authorities in the region where I am coming from remain fragile, something that puts additional work on the public sector, not necessarily the governments in this case. So civil society was missing in today’s discussion.
My question is: What should be the role for international institutions and civil society to accelerate a regional recovery? Thank you so much again for this opportunity.
MS SMITH: Yeah. No, no, really good questions, and let me make clear that this event was the start of something, not the conclusion, and our goal was to have broad global representation from all regions, and again, regional organizations. It is absolutely our intention – and I think it was very much captured in the spirit of the other attendees – that this obviously needs to expand to include more countries because we’re all in this together. So we anticipate that there will be additional consultations and that they will build out and expand as it rightly should. And we are, by the way, tracking closely the trends that you describe in terms of what we’re seeing in terms of the increase of incidents in your region.
We think civil society has an enormous role to play in multiple ways. You mentioned, for example, in some cases there are questions about science, there’s misinformation out there, and this disinformation. This came up in the conversations today. We found all over the world that sometimes the most effective antidote to that is effective interlocutors and, in fact, civil society – that there tends to be a confidence often in civil society organizations and leaders. There’s a huge role to play there. There’s a huge role to play in mobilizing citizens and in organizing and responding. Many of the responders that we’re seeing around the world, whether it’s on vaccines, saving lives, maintaining health care systems, all of the things that are needed – it’s not just government. Civil society is playing an absolutely vital role.
But the last thing I would point out that’s absolutely key is civil society is the voice that keeps and holds us all accountable, and one of the things that the Secretary announced this morning is that – something called the Multilateral Task Force, which is the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and the World Health Organization, along with ACT-A, the suite of the major organizations leading the response, have come together to create a single tracker that will track with real data the progress in our collective response. There are many advantages to this. One is it gives the world a single source of the baseline data we need, but it also enables all of us to hold ourselves accountable, and important for civil society to do so.
So we think that’s a vital role. We regularly engage with civil society actors here and around the world through our embassies and aid missions, and we fully intend to keep doing that, because we can’t succeed, quite frankly, without them.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Just to clarify, back to my first question, are you planning to invite Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, perhaps Russia as well, and Turkey? Because all of them are in the Level 4.
MS SMITH: We will – sure, we will – what the Secretary has said so far – I think a couple things came up. One is that he will do another convening before the summit and we will look to have a broad range of countries there, and I think there’s enough agreement among foreign ministers that this will be a regular series of consultations and engagements, and that absolutely we will expand it across all regions. So we look forward to having more countries participate, absolutely.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
MS SMITH: Sure. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Coordinator Smith. With that, we will conclude today’s briefing. On behalf of the Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank Coordinator Smith for briefing the foreign press today. Thank you and good afternoon.
MS SMITH: Thank you, everybody, for your time and for your coverage.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.