GUEST EDITORIAL: U.S. must do more to vaccinate the world

Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Empty vials that contained a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus lie on a table at the Klerksdorp Hospital in South Africa. (Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

The Biden administration’s decision to begin sharing U.S.-authorized COVID-19 vaccines with the rest of the world is welcome news. Now coronavirus czar Jeff Zients, who will lead U.S. efforts to fight the pandemic abroad, must swiftly craft a global vaccine strategy that’s as focused, ambitious and effective as the one that’s worked so well domestically.

Those who ask whether the U.S. ought to assume this burden should remember two things.

First, progress at home will count for less if the pandemic rages unchecked abroad. Americans might be vulnerable to new variants. Trillions in output will be lost if trade and travel continue to be disrupted. And as the global death toll mounts, instability and resentment of the U.S. and other rich countries will grow.

Second, the U.S. is uniquely qualified to lead the effort. It could soon have hundreds of millions of excess vaccine doses. It has the most influence with several of the key vaccine developers, and the most diplomatic clout. Having worked on the ground for years to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, it has expertise and longstanding relationships with public health officials in developing nations. More recently, it has begun to learn how to cope with vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.

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Success, however, will require more than the administration’s current piecemeal efforts. Its recent pledge to share 20 million Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson doses by the end of June — in addition to 60 million AstraZeneca shots once they’re cleared by regulators — will meet only a very small fraction of global need. The U.S. decision to support a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines will do little except fuel months of debate among trade officials.

An effective strategy needs a clear international schedule for sharing hundreds of millions of more doses before the end of the year. Many should be donated to COVAX, the global facility for delivering vaccines to poor nations, which is short of supplies. Other doses could be earmarked for specific countries based on stated criteria — caseloads, fatality rates, distribution capacity and, most importantly, commitment to provide vaccinations to the highest-need groups, such as health care workers and people over age 60.

The U.S. should also help to get those shots into arms. It should work with fellow G-7 nations to fund efforts by the World Health Organization to improve delivery capacity in poorer nations. And American officials can help countries more directly by advising on logistics, distribution, and training of health workers, and by fighting vaccine misinformation.

Finally, the U.S. needs to rally its partners behind a massive effort to scale up global vaccine production. The U.S. should expand manufacturing capacity at home — in part by addressing shortages of critical inputs such as bioreactor bags and filters — and encourage companies to license their technology to new partners abroad. Speed is essential. The G-7 countries should work together to set up and sustain supply chains, train staff, inspect facilities and pay for more doses.

In the longer run, the U.S. should press for new regional networks for vaccine production, especially of the potent mRNA vaccines that are likely to be most valuable in future pandemics. After 1945, open-handed help for capacity-building in countries in desperate need earned the U.S. decades of goodwill and geopolitical influence. The global pandemic demands the same kind of ambition.

— From the editors at Bloomberg Opinion (TNS).