America Risks Losing the Global Race for Vaccines

If an entire neighborhood is burning, as any firefighter knows, putting out only your own makes zero sense. So long as any house is on fire, the whole neighborhood, and town, is unsafe.

The same goes for tackling a global pandemic. But rich countries have yet to wake up to this fact. President Biden is firmly sticking to an America-first approach when it comes to vaccination. The U.S. will loan half of its stockpile of millions of AstraZeneca vaccines to Mexico and Canada. That’s it, even though it has secured enough doses from other manufacturers to cover all adults in the country by May. Soon it will have excess supply of 100 million doses.

A month after leaders in France and Germany pledged to donate vaccines to poorer countries, the EU decided it’s not ready to share doses with others after all.

All this follows a mad scramble by wealthy countries last year to snap up vaccine supply for their own populations. By not vaccinating the most vulnerable populations of the Global South, as epidemiologists warn, this will let the virus mutate and inevitably weaken the immunity of any vaccines. Put otherwise, nobody is safe until everyone is safe.

The unlikely firefighters of this story so far are Russia and China who are wasting no time to fill the void of vaccine diplomacy.  

Russia is riding high since a respected British medical journal found that its vaccine is as effective as those of Pfizer and Moderna. Thirty countries have lined up to either purchase or produce the Russian vaccine. China has been using vaccines to elevate its standing for months, even though its vaccines’ efficacy is still in question. To counter China, India literally gave away AstraZeneca vaccine doses from the 2.5 million doses it churns out daily, until it curbed vaccine exports to boost domestic supply.

Meanwhile, the global initiative to deliver vaccines to poorer countries, COVAX, has faced funding and supply shortages. Last year as 190 countries signed on, the United States opted out. So the Biden administration’s announcement that it would contribute $4 billion to the initiative was welcome news.

Yet signing checks is no substitute for global leadership. Rich nations say that they would donate excess doses to developing countries as soon as their populations are inoculated — but this is hardly a strategy for global equitable access.

Worse, wealthier countries have cut deals directly with pharmaceutical companies, undermining the COVAX pool’s purchasing power. Out of the 8.6 billion doses purchased to date, high- and upper middle-income countries hold more than 6 billion doses.

Israel, with 60 percent of its citizens having already received at least one dose of a vaccine, has so many Pfizer jabs that it kept its Moderna supply on hold until it decided to give them to friends.

In contrast, the African Union purchased 270 million doses in January to cover only a quarter of 1.3 billion Africans.

We’ve seen this movie before. During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, rich nations monopolized vaccine supplies through bilateral deals. Antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV have been available in the West since 1997, but a million people still die from HIV/AIDS every year.

The longer it takes for poorer countries to receive vaccines, the more likely new variants could emerge, making vaccines less effective and reinfecting people who already had COVID. Modeling studies show that the uneven global distribution of vaccines could result in twice as many global COVID-19 deaths.

There are dire economic consequences, too. It would cost an estimated $25 billion to supply enough vaccines to poor countries. Yet, not doing so would cost rich countries $119 billion a year in lost GDP. Even if the U.S. has access to the vaccine, its economy will drag unless its trading partners also recover, according to the International Chamber of Commerce.

With 129 million infections and 2.8 million dead, the virus shows few signs of abating. A shame future historians will ponder is why rich countries sat on over a billion more than what their entire populations need while large swaths of the developing world’s populations went unvaccinated. 

Unfortunately, America has joined other rich nations to oppose waiving some intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, so that they could be manufactured anywhere more cheaply. In contrast, the Russians and Chinese have licensed their vaccines for local manufacturers in other countries.

There are reasons to hang on to surplus vaccines. No one knows how long immunity will last, requiring booster shots. And children may need to get vaccinated, too. Yet donating vaccines to poorer countries would be a testament to this administration’s commitment to multilateralism and equity.

If “America is back,” as the president proudly put it, then it should act like a global leader. Never before has the world so badly needed a firefighter.  

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2021. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

(Photo by CDC on Unsplash)