With a new president in the White House, the U.S. is re-engaging with the rest of the world to combat Covid-19. But for now, the Biden administration may hold back the one thing poorer countries desperately need: vaccines.
One day after Joe Biden’s inauguration last week, his chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, pledged support for the World Health Organization, including participation in the Covax program to deploy vaccines globally. Even with the U.S. playing an active role, tough challenges remain in the effort to aid low- and middle-income nations.
The U.S. has long been the WHO’s leading partner in battling diseases, including smallpox, polio and Ebola. And the superpower could still have a big impact in the bid to slow Covid-19 and tackle other threats after former President Donald Trump’s pullback. Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University, said he believes it’s imperative for wealthy countries to start sharing vaccines before it’s too late. But doing so, he said, presents a challenge as the virus continues to spread in the U.S.
“When the U.S. is in an emergency, we start looking inward,” Gostin said in an interview. “Even if the rest of the world is on fire, we start looking inward.”
The administration plans to fulfill U.S. financial obligations to the WHO and looks forward to working with Covax and its partners to maximize the program’s efforts, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity. U.S. support may “not necessarily” include vaccines, Fauci told reporters Thursday at the White House.
Helping others isn’t just a moral imperative. Containing the spread of the virus in other countries could help limit mutations that might make vaccines less effective. Meanwhile, U.S. rivals for global influence, China and Russia, are busy offering their own vaccines in the developing world, winning friends and influence with traditional American allies.
As the pandemic extends into a second year and more contagious variants of the virus emerge, governments worldwide — though mainly wealthy ones — are rolling out vaccines to protect their populations. That’s triggered concern that by prioritizing their own interests, they’re ignoring the needs of less-fortunate countries while allowing the pathogen to advance.
Vaccine advocates have urged wealthy nations to share some of the supplies they’ve snapped up in recent months and to follow the lead of Norway, which pledged to donate extra doses through Covax.
While that may be a tough call, major economies could move in that direction when vaccines begin to curb severe illnesses and deaths at home, said David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and former WHO official.
“It’s going to be very difficult for all countries with money and pre-purchased supplies to provide that to Covax and to countries that need it at this time,” Heymann said. “Once the political leaders who have made these promises to their countries do see an impact from the vaccines, they may be able to reconsider national allocations and contribute more to Covax.”