The dangers of an 'America First' vaccine strategy

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What’s happening

One of President Biden’s many promises when he assumed office was to put an end to the “America First” approach that had been a defining feature of U.S. policy under former President Donald Trump. On a number of important issues Biden has kept that pledge, embracing international cooperation over isolationism.

But when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines, Biden — like his predecessor — is putting America first. While a few countries have vaccinated a larger share of their populations, the U.S. is far and away the global leader in total vaccines given. As of Monday, the U.S. had administered more than 92 million doses, almost twice as many as any other country. Nearly 30 percent of the COVID-19 vaccine doses injected worldwide have gone into American arms. At the same time, dozens of countries in the developing world have yet to receive a single dose.

Despite these numbers, and despite having preordered twice as many doses as will be needed to vaccinate the entire U.S. population, the Biden administration has said it won’t begin to share with other countries until there’s enough for all Americans. The U.S. isn’t alone in prioritizing its own citizens. The vast majority of existing and future vaccine supplies have been reserved by the world’s richest nations.

Unlike Trump, Biden has committed to supporting COVAX, an international program to aid vaccinations in low-income countries. Last month he announced the U.S. would donate $4 billion to the effort. Democrats’ stimulus package also includes $11 billion to support the broader global effort to stop the coronavirus.

Why there’s debate

Though they acknowledge the political pressures that are leading Biden to reserve vaccines for American citizens, critics say it’s immoral for the U.S. to hoard lifesaving treatments at the expense of more vulnerable countries. Under current policy, they point out, a healthy 20-year-old American who faces little risk of exposure will be protected before frontline health care workers in developing countries.

Many experts also say that wealthy countries are putting their own citizens at risk by not helping control the pandemic in other nations. Epidemiologists fear that allowing the virus to spread widely in developing nations could allow it to evolve new, vaccine-resistant variants that could threaten everyone and cause the pandemic to run on indefinitely. Economists say outbreaks in low-income countries could also impede the global economic recovery. One study found that unequal distribution of vaccines could cost the world economy $9.2 trillion.

There are also concerns that the U.S. may lose ground as a world leader by not supporting other countries’ vaccine efforts. China, Russia and India have begun donating vaccine doses to developing countries. Some international relations experts say the goodwill developed from those relationships could give America’s rivals the upper hand in global competition in the future.


The U.S. has a moral obligation to share its vaccine supplies

“Governments are under enormous pressure to prioritise their own populations. So, prioritising one’s own population is understandable. But all human beings have equal worth, and the selfish hoarding of vaccines is, in my opinion, unethical.” — Global health expert Lawrence Gostin to Al Jazeera

Vaccine-resistant variants could make the pandemic go on indefinitely

“In a future where US is vaccinated but others are not. We could see rise of variants that can infect, cause outbreaks here and other vaccinated places. Requiring us to update our vaccines and vaccinate everyone again. It’s the nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic.” — Public health expert Dr. Ashish K. Jha

The U.S. will lose ground to its international rivals if it hoards the vaccine

“While conquering the virus is the obvious and primary reason for the United States to pitch in, there is also this: It is very much in America’s national interest not to cede a critical ‘soft power’ advantage to autocratic rivals like Russia or China.” — Editorial, New York Times

The world economy will suffer as long as the pandemic continues in any nation

“Even if you reject this moral claim, the United States has a strong national interest in shortening the global pandemic. Letting covid-19 grow relatively uncontested in the developing world would impose a major economic price.” — Michael Gerson, Washington Post

Outbreaks in low-income countries represent a threat to global stability

“The speed and ferocity with which [the coronavirus] has destabilized the world caught us all off guard and triggered the biggest global crisis of our time. And now global access to COVID-19 vaccines is in danger of becoming a new social divider that will only further exacerbate this.” — Seth Berkley, The Hill

Donating money does nothing if there are no vaccines to buy

“COVAX could have all the cash in the world, but so few vaccine vials are being made that the shots are not available to buy. Those that have trickled out of the spigot have mostly been snapped up by rich countries first — and in this sense, Biden’s White House is little different.” — Alexander Smith, NBC News

Vaccine cooperation could be a political win for Biden

“Nobody denies that it is politically difficult for any leader to send vaccines abroad before every citizen is vaccinated at home. But helping control the pandemic across the world at about the same rate is not just the moral thing to do, it’s sensible. ... It’s also, seen properly, good politics.” — Mihir Sharma, Bloomberg

Sharing the vaccine could help the U.S. reestablish itself as a global leader

“Making the COVID-19 vaccine a global public good is an unmissable opportunity for the U.S. to lead again. Yet reinstating the U.S. as a global leader is not automatic based on an election outcome. Leadership has to be earned through decisive action that displays American resources and know-how to a world in a crisis.” — Margarida Jorge and Niko Lusiani, MarketWatch

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images