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 the global population, and scientists estimate that 11 billion doses are required to vaccinate 70% of the world’s population, the proportion that is thought needed to reach herd immunity.
President Joe Biden’s upcoming meetings at the Group of Seven 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 vaccine production and financing to inoculate the world.
Yet Biden should also seek to work with Beijing. While significant tensions remain with the Communist Party of China due to its obfuscation and refusal to cooperate with US 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 malign CPC activities relating to its role in the initial coverup over Covid – in addition to ongoing tensions over security, trade, the crackdown in Hong Kong and other issues – the US should make good-faith efforts to coordinate 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 vaccines as 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 shots can be improved over time through various methods, such as changing the number of doses, combining them with different vaccines, and so forth.
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 health care 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 four 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. Because of limited supplies, more than 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 shot, this despite India being 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%) 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 more than 20 million people per day.)
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 (0.83%); Kyrgyzstan (0.57%); Turkmenistan (0.53%); Afghanistan (1.24%); Turkey (21%); Syria (0.41%); 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, stands at 7.7% of its people having received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Over the coming days when meeting with his G7 and EU counterparts, President Biden needs to build on vaccination efforts already under way. This must involve helping countries expand vaccine manufacturing capacity as well as access to raw materials for the shots. US 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 vaccine-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 (Yours Truly included). Concerns vary from hurting drug makers’ incentives to 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 them.
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 government support to offset their losses.
While shots are in short supply, we are seeing an unfortunate dynamic unfold 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 about 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 US 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 vaccine-poor countries.
Along these lines, this a moment when Washington can distinguish itself from Beijing’s and Moscow’s coercive styles of vaccine diplomacy that have often employed extortion tactics toward recipient countries and involved the extracting of concessions as conditions for accepting the shots.
At this critical stage, Biden has an opportunity to head a multilateral effort to procure the financing and manufacturing of vaccines required to beat Covid. The US is in a unique position to lead on this most worthy of causes. Securing the involvement of America’s allies, partners and other necessary actors is its obligation to help safeguard global public health and a better collective future.
Ted Gover PhD is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University in California.