Rebooting Vaccine Internationalism
How the United States can learn from the shortcomings of the world's pandemic response over the past year
A week before South African health officials announced they’d discovered a new coronavirus variant – since dubbed Omicron – circulating in their country, the Biden administration announced that it would launch a new program to ramp up production capacity for mRNA COVID vaccines like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots to a billion doses a year by the second half of 2022. This uncanny coincidence only underscores the way the world’s convoluted politics has hampered the fight against COVID-19. It’s curious at best that a U.S. presidential administration rhetorically committed to becoming the “arsenal of vaccines” for the world would wait as long as it has to take this otherwise welcome step.
Attempts to blame the emergence of yet another new variant on “vaccine apartheid” and a failure to achieve “global vaccine equity” don’t work, either. To start, South Africa has faced its own vaccine hesitancy problem – indeed, just a day before it informed the world of the Omicron variant, the South African government asked Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to delay delivery of their vaccine shipments because it already had too many doses on hand. It’s an issue that became apparent over the summer, when South African health officials said their country was “sitting in a situation where we don’t have a vaccine constraint.”
It’s not just South Africa, though. Vaccine hesitancy appears widespread across southern Africa, with countries bordering South Africa like Mozambique and Namibia also requesting halts to new vaccine deliveries because they can’t use the shots they’ve already received. Reports from India indicate similar problems with vaccine hesitancy on the subcontinent as well. Since the discovery of the Omicron variant, though, there are signs that South Africans have become more willing to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
Then there’s China, which has taken advantage of Omicron’s emergence to gloat about its own zero-COVID approach and attack the United States and other democracies for allegedly hoarding vaccines while touting its own ineffective vaccines. While Chinese leaders may be convinced that they can hide behind the walls of their own gated community, it’s hard to see how Beijing’s own isolationist approach to COVID-19 works out in the long run. Even if China somehow manages to completely eradicate COVID-19 within its own borders, the country will remain vulnerable to the virus as long as it circulates around the world.
These last few months have provided us with some valuable lessons on what works in vaccine internationalism – and what pitfalls we might do well to avoid moving forward.
Increase vaccine production capacity with a much greater sense of urgency. The Biden administration’s move to spend billions of dollars to enhance America’s production capacity for mRNA vaccines is a welcome and necessary step to ensure the world has sufficient vaccine supply moving forward. As President Biden and other U.S. government officials have argued, the COVID-19 pandemic won’t truly be over for Americans until it’s over for everyone around the world – and that, in turn, means making and distributing effective vaccines for the entire planet. Increased vaccine production capacity will also benefit Americans if and when new COVID-19 variants evolve; if new variants require new vaccines, it’s best to have the ability to produce them quickly and in quantity. Moreover, additional vaccine production capacity represents an insurance policy against future pandemics – and a potentially powerful U.S. foreign policy tool that can be deployed whenever the need for vaccines arises in the future.
Vaccine hesitancy is a global problem that needs to be addressed more effectively. Most Americans are familiar with the consequences of vaccine hesitancy given the widespread refusal of many of their fellow citizens to do their part and get their COVID-19 shots. But vaccine hesitancy appears to be a worldwide, universal phenomenon – and likely a greater stumbling block to beating the pandemic than existing vaccine supply constraints. Though the United States and other nations that manufacture effective COVID-19 vaccines should ramp up their efforts to flood the market with doses, the world needs to mount a more concerted campaign to overcome vaccine hesitancy in places like India and South Africa where variants like Delta and Omicron first evolved. As we’ve seen here in the United States, overcoming vaccine hesitancy represents a much more difficult task than simply increasing vaccine production – but a glut of effective vaccines does the world no good if too many people refuse to take them.
Don’t expect much from China. It’s a truism among many in American progressive circles that the United States needs to take a soft line against China on issues like human rights and Taiwan to secure Beijing’s cooperation on global challenges like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. But China’s own gated community approach to the pandemic demonstrates the limits of appeasement: Beijing has displayed no real interest in working with the United States or any other nation or international institution to beat the pandemic. It’s refused to cooperate with global investigations into the origins of COVID-19 and pushed its own ineffective vaccines around the world. Indeed, the Chinese government appears more interested in scoring political points against the United States than in contributing to an effective global response to a pandemic that originated in its own borders. While a change of attitude in Beijing would be welcome, it’s only prudent for American and other responsible policymakers to assume that China will at best be a non-factor when it comes to the global campaign against COVID-19. There’s no reason to accommodate Beijing in order to secure pandemic cooperation it’s unwilling or unprepared to offer.
Abroad as at home, the Biden administration needs to refocus its attention once again on the COVID-19 pandemic. The emergence of the Omicron variant has laid bare the shortcomings of the American and global responses to the pandemic over the past year. We’ve certainly made progress against the pandemic, but that progress has been slower and less complete than needed to get back to something resembling normal – in no small part due to the policies pursued by governments and actions taken by societies around the world.
If the United States approaches the pandemic with a greater sense of urgency over the next year – ramping up vaccine production capacity, countering vaccine hesitancy globally, and working together with partners actually interested in beating the pandemic – we can accelerate progress toward a return to normalcy at home and overseas.