The following editorial appears on Bloomberg Opinion.
Restoring America’s respected position in the international community is a powerful reason for voters to replace the current president. A return to partnership with other countries on trade, climate protection and so many more issues would be a boon to health and prosperity for the U.S. and the world. At the moment, a surpassing concern is to create and distribute a vaccine against COVID-19. The U.S. needs to finally join the international push -- already well underway -- to see that vulnerable people in every country can be inoculated as quickly as possible.
At this point, more than 180 countries have joined the global vaccine purchasing pool known as COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility) -- including, recently, China. Of the dozen or so countries still on the sidelines, the U.S. stands alone in publicly rejecting the project. The Trump administration refuses to work with the World Health Organization, which is one of the three international agencies that have organized COVAX.
This is a foolish position, and not only because it subverts America’s proud tradition of world leadership and compassion in public health. It also makes it harder to defeat COVID-19, which will persist until it is brought under control everywhere. This is the reality of pandemics -- and why, for example, the world has worked so hard, via the WHO, to eradicate infectious diseases from smallpox to polio. Furthermore, until COVID-19 is brought under control worldwide, global supply chains and economic activity cannot rebound.
Perhaps the most self-damaging aspect of this unwillingness to join COVAX is that it limits America’s access to potential COVID-19 vaccines. COVAX is a way to help supply poorer countries with vaccines as soon as they become available, but it’s also an insurance policy for wealthy countries, giving them access to the earliest effective shots, even if they’ve put their money on other candidates.
COVAX is supporting the development of at least nine vaccines now, and may eventually help fund as many as 18. It hopes to buy 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, prioritizing front-line health care workers and highly vulnerable people worldwide. Its more affluent partner countries have contributed about three-quarters of the $2 billion that COVAX aims to raise by the end of this year to help pay for shots in poorer countries.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is investing some $18 billion through Operation Warp Speed to secure supplies of at least six potential vaccines now in development. If one of these turns out to be the first to work safely, Americans will be in luck. But if one of the many others reaches the finish line sooner, the U.S. will want to procure it -- and it could if it joined COVAX. Even if an American-backed vaccine is an early success, the U.S. could buy additional doses, beyond the number it has contracted for. Countries can access enough doses for 20% of their populations through COVAX, provided there are enough to go around.
Collaboration can also improve all countries’ efforts to address vaccine distribution challenges and popular resistance to vaccination, which appears to be increasing in the U.S.
Earlier this month, an expert panel from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine urged the White House to reconsider joining COVAX -- in the interest of ending the pandemic and improving global health security, and because it is America’s “moral duty” to “maintain its historical position as a leader in global health.” Beyond helping to fund COVAX, the U.S. should also contribute 10% of its vaccine supply, the scientists said.
Both recommendations make sense. On a purely selfish calculation, vaccine nationalism is counterproductive, because it risks prolonging the pandemic. Governments should put the health of their own people first -- but that means helping the rest of the world conquer COVID-19.