Vaccine Internationalism, Take Three
Why the United States stands poised to geopolitically benefit from vaccinating the world
Last week, the Biden administration rolled out its long-awaited strategy to provide the rest of the world with COVID-19 vaccines. While the Biden team made the sensible and correct case that the United States had to have enough vaccine supply to bring the pandemic under control at home before helping supply other nations, it appeared to be caught off guard by devastating COVID-19 surges in countries like India over the spring. Despite some missteps in its first several months in office, however, the Biden administration’s recent commitment to ship some 80 million vaccine doses overseas by the end of June represents a good first step toward vaccine internationalism.
It’s a small step forward given the magnitude of the challenge – after all, the world needs some 11 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to ensure that 70 percent of the global population gets vaccinated. But it’s important to recognize that the world has only produced 1.7 billion doses total so far, and that the moves announced by the Biden administration amount to America’s first steps toward vaccine internationalism. All in all, the United States looks set to do its part in the campaign to vaccinate the world against COVID-19.
This move doesn’t come a moment too soon, either. As Biden administration officials have made clear, a policy of vaccine internationalism is as much an act of self-interest as it is an act of altruism by the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic will not come to an end until a critical mass of the global population receives safe and effective vaccines against the disease.
It’s also a question of strategic self-interest in what President Biden has characterized as a global competition between democracies like the United States and autocracies like China. When Biden took office in January, it looked like China would beat the United States in the race to vaccinate the world. Beijing offered Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines to any and all takers worldwide, of which there were many – even among traditional American security partners. At very least, Chinese vaccines had a healthy head start over American and European rivals.
However, recent evidence from countries in Latin America and the Middle East – where China has supplied most COVID-19 vaccines – suggests that Chinese-made vaccines aren’t as effective against the pandemic as those authorized for use in the United States. Health authorities in the United Arab Emirates have given third shots of the Sinopharm vaccine to those that have already received two doses, for instance, while Bahraini health authorities have recommended boosters of the U.S./German Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to those in high-risk groups who have already received the Sinopharm shot. The Seychelles have seen a new COVID-19 spike despite vaccinating some 60 percent of their population, over half with Sinopharm vaccines donated by the UAE.
Likewise, Latin American nations like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile have relied on Chinese- and Russian-made vaccines to protect their populations against COVID-19. Despite high vaccination rates with the Sinovac shot – some 38.5 percent by April 2021 – Chile suffered a new wave of COVID-19 cases over the spring and went into national lockdown. Results from Brazil at the start of the year showed Sinovac no more effective than a coin toss at 50.4 percent, while Brazilian health authorities expressed concerns about the effectiveness of Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine at the end of April.
The Biden administration’s move to provide the world with 80 million vaccine doses could not have come at a better time. America looks set to start shipping tens of millions of highly effective American- and European-made COVID-19 vaccines abroad just as Chinese- and Russian-made shots have begun to show their limitations. With America’s own COVID-19 case and fatality rates at their lowest levels since the earliest days of the pandemic in March 2020, the Biden administration’s international vaccination strategy appears to be working so far.
Indeed, the United States and a number of other democratic nations have used American- and European-made vaccines to return their societies to a semblance of normal life – even despite the emergence of new variants of the virus. It’s both a concrete demonstration of the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines as well as a neon advertisement for the scientific and technological prowess of democratic societies after an extremely rocky early response to the pandemic.
As always, the details of the Biden team’s plan are important:
Three-quarters of doses – 60 million shots – will be distributed through COVAX, the global COVID-19 vaccination consortium. A quarter of doses will be held for direct donation to “countries in need, those experiencing surges, immediate neighbors, and other countries that have requested immediate U.S. assistance.”
Of the first 25 million doses the Biden administration plans to distribute, 19 million will go through COVAX – including 6 million doses to Latin American countries, 7 million to Asian nations, and 5 million to African states.
The United States will distribute the remaining 6 million doses to priority countries like Mexico, Canada, South Korea, and various nations in the Middle East including Egypt, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories.
The 80 million doses announced doesn’t include some 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that have been bought but remain unapproved for use in the United States. State Department COVID-19 response coordinator Gayle Smith says that this stockpile will be shared as soon as the FDA gives its approval.
A successful global vaccination effort led by the United States would above all represent a tremendous victory for the health and safety of billions of people around the world. But it’d also amount to a strategic victory for the United States and other democracies in their competition for status and influence with autocracies like China and Russia. As with other challenges in our history, we may have bungled our initial response to the pandemic in devastating ways – but we’ve also proven able to recover from our errors quickly and turn disaster into something resembling success.