© 2024 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Gayle Smith Means For U.S. Vaccine Diplomacy


President Biden says the next phase of the fight against COVID-19 will happen overseas. His team is working on a new plan to send millions of doses around the world, leading an effort with other donor nations to beat the virus. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has this profile of Gayle Smith, Biden's point person on this diplomatic push.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was September 2014, and Ebola was moving faster than the global efforts to contain it. Gayle Smith was a top official on the National Security Council staff when she made a call to her longtime friend Susan Rice, then the national security adviser.

SUSAN RICE: And I remember vividly being with President Obama at the NATO summit in Wales and Gayle calling me late at night to talk about what are we going to do about the Ebola epidemic.

KEITH: Smith had come to the conclusion that U.S. efforts in West Africa were falling short.

RICE: That they were spiraling out of control and that the tools we had to address it were insufficient to the challenge.

KEITH: So that night, they came up with a solution.

RICE: What if we could get the U.S. military to play a meaningful role in a humanitarian response?

KEITH: Making this out-of-the-box idea a reality took a lot of persuasion - the careful work of getting everyone, including military leadership, on board. Ten days later, President Obama went to CDC headquarters.


BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. Please be seated.

KEITH: He would send 3,000 U.S. troops to build field hospitals and distribute supplies.


OBAMA: And our forces are going to bring their expertise in command and control, in logistics, in engineering.

KEITH: That commitment galvanized other countries to pitch in. Smith was in the Oval Office as President Obama called other world leaders, asking them to help. Stephen Morrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Smith was key.

STEPHEN MORRISON: Up to that point, it was panic and paralysis in the international response to what was happening in West Africa. The turning point was getting President Obama mobilized and focused with a game plan, and Gayle was at the center of that thinking.

KEITH: Smith has been immersed in difficult global challenges since the early 1980s. She was a journalist and aid worker when civil war and famine killed more than a million people in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It left an indelible mark on how she views the world and the need to work toward greater fairness. Now 65 years old, Smith has worked on international development in three Democratic administrations. Abby Maxman is CEO of Oxfam America.

ABBY MAXMAN: Here she is, this combination of an activist, a journalist, you know, and an administrator. Those are not all things that always go hand in hand.

KEITH: Activist isn't generally a term used to describe people working inside the government, but that's how people describe Smith. Most recently, she was CEO of the ONE Campaign, an advocacy group fighting global poverty and disease. She took a six-month leave of absence for her new job. But just before that, she retweeted an article critical of the Biden administration, urging it to share excess vaccine doses. Tom Hart is the acting CEO of the ONE Campaign.

TOM HART: She was very clear about her intentions before she went in. I don't think there could be any question about her desire to move fast and boldly in this position.

KEITH: He says the U.S. has contracts for at least half a billion more doses than it needs. Smith is working on a plan for getting at least some of them out into the world. Meanwhile, China and Russia have forged ahead. At a hearing last week, she was pressed by senators from both parties on what the U.S. is doing.


GAYLE SMITH: There's no question but that we need a grand plan and that the United States needs to be at the forefront of that. Frankly, I think that's the difference between bringing this pandemic to an end in three or four years and bringing it to an end in a year, 18 months, two years.

KEITH: Smith said she's thinking in terms as bold as the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. Smith and her colleagues at the ONE Campaign coined a phrase that has now become ubiquitous about the risk of variants if COVID is allowed to spread uncontrolled in poorer countries. None of us are safe until all of us are safe.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXMAG'S "ZAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.