health

Ending the pandemic means vaccinating the whole world—but the US is focusing on itself

More than 500,000 Americans have now been vaccinated against COVID-19. In the next year, as more and more people receive their inoculations in the US, the vaccines will play a key role in helping the country recover from the pandemic. But vaccinating the entire country will alone not stop the pandemic. A global health event requires a worldwide response. However, the United States, once a leader in geopolitical affairs, has not participated in the international effort to make sure all countries are supplied with COVID-19 vaccines.

“The United States is not really helping to ensure that doses of the vaccine get to lower-income countries,” says Carnegie Mellon University bioethicist Danielle Wenner.

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) was formed earlier this year by the World Health Organization and other international organizations to ensure that COVAX member countries would be able to pool their resources on vaccine development and all receive doses of vaccine. However, the United States—historically considered a world leader in international matters of this sort—is not a member of COVAX and is receiving its vaccines through a direct agreement with the companies producing the preventative drugs.

Remaining absent from this group will not only have a large effect on global vaccine access but it will also influence how long the pandemic persists, including in the United States. The US has a multitude of resources that could help global vaccine access and distribution and its participation in COVAX could help end the pandemic faster; simply vaccinating its own citizens won’t cut it. “It’s really not the case that you can eradicate an infectious disease in one corner of the globe,” says Wenner. “We can’t exist in a national lockdown indefinitely.”

Because the United States relies on international trade and travel to keep its economy afloat, the health of every nation around the globe influences the state of America’s health and economy.

The Trump administration said earlier this fall that it would be focusing on vaccinating Americans before “looking to do our fair share” for other countries. However, at this time there is no clear plan or commitment as to how that will occur.

COVAX plans to start distributing vaccine doses to its members in early 2021. The multinational group has contracts for up to 2 billion doses. Some of its 190 member countries, like Canada, also have direct agreements with vaccine-makers and are already vaccinating citizens. They’ll potentially also be sharing extra doses they bought directly from vaccine-makers with lower-income countries, according to principles established by COVAX.

In the United States, President-Elect Joe Biden has reportedly been in talks with GAVI, the public-private partnership that oversees COVAX. However, he has yet to formally commit to signing America up when he takes office.

Signing on may help the United States repair its fractured international reputation, in addition to helping end the pandemic faster. “The U.S. had a lot of soft power before the Trump administration came in,” says Wenner. “The Trump administration has been very nationalistic in its outlook. And that comes with costs.”