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The fragmented forces of vaccine nationalism won another victory this week: U.S. officials told The Washington Post that the United States would not participate in the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) Facility, a global effort to help develop and distribute a coronavirus vaccine backed by the World Health Organization.
The U.S. absence is a major blow for a project seeking to overcome unequal access to immunization. More than 170 countries are in talks to participate in Covax. Germany, Japan and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, have backed it.
US Officially pulls out of COVAX. This is a big deal for COVID, but also geopolitically. A big big deal. https://t.co/fBVkBBdp2E— Emily Blanchard (@emilyjblanchard) September 2, 2020
But America is not alone in going it alone. Following the U.S. example, many other countries are pursuing unilateral plans, focused on producing a vaccine for priority use or buying up potential vaccines from other nations.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Tuesday the United States would not be “constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.” Instead, the Trump administration has doubled down on Operation Warp Speed, its multibillion-dollar effort to administer a domestic vaccine as early as the fall.
Russia, too, has rejected the Covax plan. Instead, it is already rolling out its Sputnik V vaccine, which it has dubbed the “the first registered vaccine against COVID-19,” for teachers and health-care workers — despite warnings that it was rushed through testing.
In China, where the People’s Liberation Army has played a central role in the development of vaccines, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday that Beijing supported the aims of Covax and would coordinate with it. But she stopped short of making a commitment to the project.
Covax’s backers say they are still optimistic, pointing to support from other rich nations. But with deadlines extended and terms shifting, the project may not end up being quite what many had envisaged.
It’s worth considering why vaccine nationalism seems to be winning. Cooperative, international efforts are not famous for finding speedy solutions. Some countries probably reason that they could join Covax later if it succeeds.
And if a country develops a working vaccine domestically or preemptively buys up millions of doses, it gets first access. For some wealthy nations, the benefits outweigh the risks or moral problems.
The United States has already invested $10 billion in candidate vaccines, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a relative bargain compared to the trillions of dollars spent on financial bailouts so far, and one with the potential to affect the dynamics of the upcoming presidential election.
Exclusive: The Trump administration ‘urgently’ requested governors do everything in their power to ensure that COVID-19 vaccine distribution sites are ‘fully operational by November 1,’ two days before the presidential election. https://t.co/INiEwKAfvF— Michael Wilner (@mawilner) September 2, 2020
If a country can develop a vaccine, it also has the opportunity to distribute it. For China, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, it would be a chance to restore global standing. The same could be argued for Russia and the United States, both run by leaders who are unpopular globally.
Some nations may struggle to navigate this rocky geopolitical terrain. Mexico, for example, is pushing ahead with a plan to not only cooperate with the Covax program, but to ally itself with programs in foreign nations from Cuba to France, Deputy Foreign Minister Martha Delgado told Reuters.
By some reckonings, the vaccine rivalry is healthy, perhaps even ideal. “Competition between nations has, historically, often driven innovation. That was certainly true of the Cold War space race. Or the scientific breakthroughs — from radar to rockets — of World War II,” Matthew Lynn wrote for the Spectator this week.
Most who study vaccines do not share this view. The space race may have led to “one giant leap for mankind” on the Moon, but few forget that the astronaut who took the step was American. It’s not hard to see how poorer nations could be left behind in the vaccine race, too.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that a handful of rich nations had already struck deals for nearly 4 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines in development, taking up almost all of the world’s capacity and leaving little for poor nations, despite the rapid spread of the virus in the developing world.
The supply problems have only begun. “Vaccine supply chains contain some unusual links, including horseshoe crab blood, shark liver oil and an enzyme that’s one of the world’s most expensive products,” economists Scott Duke Kominers and Alex Tabarrok wrote for Bloomberg last month. “Other links rely on novel manufacturing processes that have not yet been implemented at scale.”
Immunization programs have a mixed success rate. Smallpox was eradicated with the help of a successful vaccine, but polio and measles still linger despite working vaccines. The huge number of cases globally and the “novel” nature of the coronavirus would complicate eradication efforts. Rushed, potentially faulty vaccines would have the potential to strengthen anti-vaccination movements.
Covax is one hope for dealing with some of these problems, but an imperfect one. It requires wealthy nations to put up about $18 billion in purchases for about a dozen experimental vaccines, with the aim to ensure first access for the world’s most vulnerable. Under the plan, nations could still make bilateral deals if they wanted to.
But the United States and others still rejected the plan, essentially betting on Operation Warp Speed or other national measures. In an interview this month with IAVI Report, a scientific magazine on virus research, vaccine expert Seth Berkley, the chief executive of GAVI and one of the backers of Covax, said he worried about a world in which governments provide vaccines for their own people alone.
“If you have massive outbreaks of virus circulating, adapting to humans, mutating, and then spreading, you’re never going to solve this,” he said.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.
Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.
The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.
New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
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