Prolonging this global public health crisis will result in missed opportunities for the global economy.
The White House’s June 3 announcement of its plan to donate 80 million COVID-19 vaccines to countries in need was commendable in spirit yet insufficient in real terms.
The 80 million doses would provide coverage for only 1% of global population, and scientists estimate that 11 billion doses are required to vaccinate 70% of the world’s population, the proportion which is thought needed to reach herd immunity.
President Biden’s upcoming meetings at the G7 in the United Kingdom and with the European Union in Brussels are an opportune time to work out a more robust plan to scale up jab production and financing to vaccinate the world.
Yet, Biden should also seek to work with Beijing. While significant tensions remain with the Chinese Communist Party due to its obfuscation and refusal to cooperate with U.S. efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19, the White House should be open to collaborating with China to get shots in arms in the developing world. In particular, China’s extensive relationships on the African continent can come into play here.
Although concerns are justified over maligned CCP activities relating to its role in the initial coverup over COVID – – in addition to lingering tensions over security, trade, the crackdown in Hong Kong and China’s ongoing cultural genocide of the Uighurs – – the U.S. should make good faith efforts to work with China to get vaccines where they need to go.
One of the drawbacks to collaborating with Beijing is the self-admitted problems associated with China’s jabs as the scattered data about them indicate that they are not as efficacious as their Western and Russian counterparts. Yet, something is better than nothing and the Sinopharm and Sinovac jabs can be improved over time through various methods, i.e., changing the number of doses, combining them with different vaccines, etc.
The stakes in vaccinating the world couldn’t be clearer. The pandemic is ongoing and new COVID variants are being produced in unvaccinated areas. The variants threaten to set back efforts to defeat COVID and could necessitate additional curbs in social activity, negatively impacting places of commerce, worship, learning, entertainment, non-COVID healthcare and discourse.
Prolonging this global public health crisis will also result in missed opportunities for the global economy. According to the IMF, $9 trillion in additional economic growth over the course of the next 4 years is achievable if the world stems COVID. The rate at which the pandemic is contained will determine when badly needed supply chains are restored or newly created.
While America’s domestic COVID numbers have improved, the current global condition of the pandemic needs urgent attention. Due to limited supplies, still over 60 countries still have not received vaccines through COVAX, the worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
For perspective, thus far Africa accounts for only 2% of administered vaccines. Only 13% of India’s population has received the jab, this despite India being the home to the world’s largest vaccine producer, the problem-ridden Serum Institute in Maharashtra State which has been forced to cancel vaccine exports to countries in need.
According to Our World in Data’s figures, only 22% of people in South America have received the vaccine, while other countries in Latin America also struggle with their vaccination rates with Mexico at 18%, Guatemala (2.75%), El Salvador (19%), Nicaragua (2%), Honduras (3.7%), Costa Rica (24%), Belize (17%) and Panama (17%).
In the Middle East and Asia, the figures are also dire. (China remains an outlier in Asia with a robust vaccination drive of over 20 million people per day in China alone.) To date, some of the countries with low vaccination rates are Pakistan at less than 3%; Nepal (7.2%); Bangladesh (3.5%); Sri Lanka (9.5%); Kazakhstan (12%); Tajikistan (.83%); Kyrgyzstan (.57%); Turkmenistan (.53%); Afghanistan (1.24%); Turkey (21%); Syria (.41%); Iraq (1%); Iran (4.6%); Indonesia (6.6%); Vietnam (1.3%); Cambodia (16.5%); Laos (9.3%); Thailand (5.2%); Myanmar (3.2%); the Philippines (4%); Taiwan (3%); and South Korea (18%).
Japan, the host of the upcoming Olympic Games next month, stands at 7.7% of its people having received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Over the coming days when meeting his G7 and EU counterparts, President Biden needs to build on existing vaccination efforts already underway. This must involve helping countries expand vaccine manufacturing capacity as well as access to raw materials for the shots. Here at home, U.S. jab production facilities must also be expanded.
Failing to increase vaccine manufacturing capacity and access to raw materials will contribute to ongoing supply limitations, prolonging the pandemic.
Knowledge sharing and vaccine production training in the developing world are needed steps in the process. Such measures will help create other jab manufacturing centers that can help scale up production for COVID-19 and future pandemics. They would also help simplify some of the logistical issues of getting vaccines to vulnerable and remote populations quickly, lessening the developing world’s dependence on wealthy countries.
Some understandably have reservations about the waiving of intellectual property protections for the innovative companies that made the COVID-19 vaccines. Concerns vary from hurting drug makers’ incentives; manufacturing and safety problems; the difficulty in securing the specialized materials needed for vaccines; and a widespread lack of training and knowledge needed for manufacturing the jabs.
Yet, the unique, urgent nature of the pandemic justifies the waiving of the patent protections, and the companies affected (Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, etc.) must be provided ongoing government support to offset their losses.
While shots are in short supply, we are seeing an unfortunate dynamic unfold before us in which higher and middle-income countries have been able to secure 80% of the distributed vaccines thus far. Although the June 2 Gavi vaccine donor conference boosted efforts to send doses to low income countries by securing $2.4 billion, these funds will only cover approximately 30% of the adult populations in the recipient countries.
Going forward, wealthier countries will need to commit to the allocation and distribution of vaccines to lower-income nations. To prevent the spread of variants, these transfers will need to take place on a faster basis than what has transpired thus far. A failure to do so will stifle economic recovery and further limit trade and open markets.
There are humanitarian and ethical principles involved with this endeavor. The U.S. can and must lead in reversing the present trend of vaccine haves and have nots on the global stage where lives are at risk in jab-poor countries.
Along these lines, this is a moment when Washington can distinguish itself from Beijing’s and Moscow’s coercive styles of vaccine diplomacy that have often employed extortion tactics towards recipient countries and involved the extracting of concessions as conditions for accepting the jabs.
At this critical stage, Mr. Biden has an opportunity to head a multilateral effort to procure the financing and manufacturing of vaccines required to beat COVID. The U.S. is in a unique position to lead on this most worthy of causes. Securing the involvement of American allies, partners and other necessary actors is our obligation to help safeguard global public health and a better collective future.