But we might be seeing a false dawn. Despite the amazing progress we’ve made with vaccines, the truth is that our current trajectory virtually guarantees that we will never really defeat the coronavirus. It will stay alive and keep mutating and surging across the globe. Years from now, countries could be facing new outbreaks that will force hard choices between new lockdowns or new waves of disease and death.
The basic problem is in how the vaccine is being distributed around the world — not based on where there is the most need, but the most money. The richest countries have paid for hundreds of millions of doses, often far in excess of what they need. Canada, for example, has preordered enough to cover its 38 million residents five times over.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s 200 million people have not received a single dose of the vaccine.
Rich countries make up 16 percent of the world’s population, yet they have locked up 60 percent of the world’s vaccine supply. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Thomas Bollyky and Chad Bown pointed out that Australia, Canada and Japan account for less than 1 percent of the world’s coronavirus cases but have secured more doses than all of Latin America and the Caribbean, which account for more than 17 percent of cases.
Even though several African countries have been used for vaccine trials, almost no sub-Saharan nation has received vaccines in any significant quantity, while 40 million doses have already been administered in rich countries. Duke University researchers say many developing countries will not be fully vaccinated until 2024, which means the virus will have years to spread and mutate. In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates note that low- and middle-income countries will be able to vaccinate only 1 out of every 5 people by the end of 2021. “Like it or not,” they write, “we’re all in this together.”
The problem goes well beyond public health. The International Chamber of Commerce has released a study showing that this lopsided vaccination of the world will cause global economic losses of $1.5 trillion to $9.2 trillion, of which half could be borne by the richest countries. Looking at data from 35 industries and 65 countries, the study concluded that the world economy is so interconnected that having large areas of it still suffering from covid-19 would produce bottlenecks, frictions and loss of demand that would affect everyone, everywhere. Another study estimates that for every dollar rich countries invest in vaccines for the developing world, they would get back about $5 in economic output.
Despite these realities, vaccine nationalism is actually rising, as slow supplies and bureaucratic delays in rich countries have caused politicians to demand speedy action for their populations. European nations are threatening to restrict exports of the Pfizer vaccine, and to take legal action against AstraZeneca, because of suspicions that it has prioritized delivering vaccines to Britain over E.U. countries (which the company denies). Dozens of countries have also restricted exports of medical supplies, which will seriously hamper efforts to eradicate covid-19 worldwide.
It’s entirely understandable that rich countries want to vaccinate their own populations first. But there is a way to act rationally and sensibly, without hoarding vaccines, and to make policy that will ensure the disease is eradicated faster everywhere.
Bollyky and Bown lay out an excellent plan in Foreign Affairs. They argue that the United States should use the lessons from Operation Warp Speed to ramp up production and distribution of the vaccine worldwide. It could build the same kind of international coalition that it did to tackle AIDS in Africa. There is now a global vaccination effort to help developing countries, COVAX, which provides a powerful framework for action. President Donald Trump refused to join this effort despite the participation of over 180 nations, but President Biden has reversed that decision. He could go further, using it as a platform to demonstrate the United States’ unique capacity to bring countries together around a common problem, to help raise the resources needed — and to solve the most pressing problem facing the world.