Through the brilliance of scientists, the ingenuity of the life sciences industry, and the mobilization of taxpayer dollars, COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and distributed in record time. By now, all American adults who want to be vaccinated have likely received at least two doses, and many three. Supply is plentiful in the U.S. and most of Europe.
But in the rest of the world, far fewer adults have been vaccinated. Calls to distribute U.S.-developed and acquired vaccines globally are increasing, yet domestic political priorities seem to be limiting U.S. governmental efforts.
There are several good reasons to distribute vaccines globally.
Most important for fighting future pandemics, vaccine distribution is key to prevent weakening of the process that led to the rapid development of these vaccines in the first place. Health activists around the world, and especially in rich nations, want to undermine drug company patent protection in general and specifically for these vaccines.
In October 2020, India and South Africa asked the World Trade Organization to waive protections in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19 … until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity.” They are backed by more than 100 nations. While EU officials have opposed such efforts at WTO meetings, the Biden administration has flip-flopped and most recently supported it.
They fail to understand that patent protection empowered small companies like BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax; university researchers at Oxford University; and larger companies like Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, and Astra Zeneca to work at the cutting edge of science. While taxpayer funding has helped, the private sector has driven innovation.
Poor government policy and lack of urgency by government officials, not patent protections, are why most around the world have not been vaccinated.
In the early days of the pandemic, many governments failed to make deals with companies to deliver the vaccines or acted slowly. The EU also unhelpfully threatened litigation against Astra Zeneca for delaying vaccine delivery, while at the same time halting the use of its vaccine over concerns of blood clotting. Other countries even denied the disease was real – most famously Tanzania, whose former President probably died from COVID-19 in 2020 while in office.
Contrast this with quick and unprecedented actions by the private sector to boost production, such as Merck helping to manufacture the Pfizer vaccine. Going forward, governments could help boost limited production capacity by providing more funding or tax breaks for production expansion.
Another government roadblock has been poor logistical delivery in those nations. Turf wars exist over who should deliver vaccines within nations. Local governments want to control delivery even with limited capacity.
To finish the global COVID-19 vaccination push, governments would be well served to address their own failures rather than pushing misguided changes that would undermine the very system we will need to combat future disease outbreaks.
The U.S. should also invest in vaccine aid out of self-interest. All viruses mutate, and there are already myriad major mutations to SARS-CoV-2 that are more contagious, more lethal, or more vaccine resistant than the original strain. As I write, it’s still too early to know whether the newest Omicron strain will pose greater risk still; early reports suggest it is the most contagious variant yet.
Given the likelihood that new and more dangerous mutations will occur, lowering global caseloads through vaccines is paramount. Travel bans from high-risk nations with new variants, such as South Africa, lower the risk of transmission but are of limited effect. Vaccinating people around the world lowers our own risk from new strains, even if we are well-vaccinated today. The effort would more than pay for itself as economically and physically healthy trading partners mean more recipients for U.S. goods and services and greater economic growth.
Finally, the U.S. can project soft global power via vaccine diplomacy. Russia and China developed their own vaccines and both nations are exporting these vaccines to bolster their image around the world. Unlike the U.S., both started exporting vaccines well before they had inoculated a small fraction of their own populations. Russia exported to San Marino and had deals with the German region of Bavaria, as well as three Eastern European countries. China has acted similarly, and Beijing appears to have benefitted diplomatically from its vaccine efforts.
In a world of competing visions, helping other countries combat the worst pandemic in a century is good politics. Fortunately, the United States could still aggressively boost vaccine distribution to bolster its global image and perhaps win new friends.
For these reasons, it is imperative that the Biden administration increase its vaccine delivery effort, including increased funding to private sector life sciences innovators to deliver the vaccines. This might cost billions of dollars, but it is a small amount compared to the trillions spent by government supporting their economies during lockdowns. Speeding vaccine delivery would accelerate the end of this pandemic and increase goodwill among us and our allies. We should not let this opportunity slip away.
Roger Bate is a senior fellow with the Center for Health Care at the Pacific Research Institute.