The Debate | Opinion

America Must Become the Vaccine Arsenal of Democracy

The tragedy underway in India proves that the United States must leverage its full industrial and scientific capacity until the entire world is vaccinated.

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America Must Become the Vaccine Arsenal of Democracy
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As President Joe Biden and Congress lead a historic effort to distribute vaccines and rebuild the U.S. economy, the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind most Americans. Yet worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic is worse than ever. The unprecedented surge in India alone means there are now more cases of COVID-19 in the world today than at any other point since the pandemic began. With rich countries’ controlling a disproportionate number of vaccines, many of the hardest-hit nations have insufficient supplies. As much as 25 percent of the world’s population will not have access to vaccines until 2022 at the earliest. This is an unacceptable situation, on both moral and strategic grounds.

The global surge of COVID-19 is an immediate national security risk to the United States. It would take the emergence of only one vaccine-resistant strain of the virus to quickly reverse all the hard-fought progress we have made at home. The more COVID-19 spreads uncontained, the greater the danger of such vaccine-resistant strains emerging. We are already witnessing new mutant strains that are emerging amidst India’s outbreak moving into neighboring nations such as Nepal. And as we learned last year, the United States cannot wall itself off from the rest of the world. With the pandemic in retreat in the United States, but spiraling out of control abroad, this moment calls for American leadership. The United States must expand its historic vaccination campaign around the world, and work with allies and partners to fight the virus abroad before it can once again wreak havoc at home.

As in World War II, the United States must leverage its full industrial and scientific capacity. Distributing excess vaccines, negotiating an emergency waiver to World Trade Organization (WTO) patent rules to speed global vaccine production, and committing to continuing U.S. vaccine production and distribution until the entire world is vaccinated are all essential steps the United States should take in order to become the Vaccine Arsenal of Democracy.

The Biden administration has already announced that the U.S. government will distribute up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine previously sitting unused. This is a welcome step and builds on the previously announced Quad effort that enables the United States, Japan, Australia, and India to each contribute its strengths to vaccinating the Indo-Pacific. The committed vaccines must now be distributed as quickly as possible and allocated based on the greatest need. India and Brazil are two nations in desperate need, and the United States should use its considerable logistical capacity in both the Indo-Pacific and the Atlantic to deliver these doses as soon as possible.

India is particularly crucial given that its own considerable vaccine-making capacity is now entirely consumed by its domestic needs. The Biden administration had hoped to use that capacity as the foundation of the Quad’s vaccination efforts, as did COVAX, the international vaccine effort. Indeed, Indian vaccines had already created an alternative to China’s vaccination diplomacy in Latin America – a role the United States must also take up itself. Vulnerable regions close to the U.S., especially along the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, are a natural priority.

But this is only the beginning. The United States must also stand against global vaccine inequality by joining India, as well as most other WTO member states,  to negotiate a temporary emergency waiver of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) patent rules to boost worldwide production of COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests. The profits of pharmaceutical companies, or even their intellectual property rights, must never outweigh the lives of human beings. This is in the interest of all Americans who need protection against vaccine-resistant strains that could again shatter the U.S. and global economy or kill loved ones.

While the Trump administration had derailed negotiations for a TRIPS waiver, the Biden administration can remedy this failure. Doing so would help speed production of life-saving vaccines. It’s also an opportunity to distance the country from Donald Trump’s xenophobia by siding with the African, Asian, and Latin American nations whose relationships with the United States were poisoned by the former president’s insults. Furthermore, a scenario in which the majority of the world remains dependent on Russian or Chinese vaccines is clearly not in the United States’ interest. America must stand with the ranks of the world’s working poor, not the profits of giant pharmaceutical corporations.

That’s why, in addition to allowing other nations to use U.S. vaccine technology and manufacture their own versions of American vaccines, the U.S. should commit itself to continuing mass vaccine production until the coronavirus is defeated. The United States has the industrial capacity to manufacture enough vaccines for all Americans and a substantial amount of what is needed for the rest of the world’s fight against COVID-19 — just as Washington once produced the planes, tanks, and rifles for every Allied nation in the fight against fascism. As the U.S. learned from India’s recent surge, hard-won gains can vanish in an instant. It is essential that the United States maintains its super-charged vaccine production long after the United States itself has reached herd immunity.

As COVID-19 continues its deadly march across the globe, the United States must seize this opportunity to re-establish its reputation for moral leadership. Just like when it entered WWII, the United States must again shake off the remnants of isolationism and work closely with allies against an existential enemy: a deadly pandemic. By vaccinating the world, the United States can prove that the failures of American First are truly over. Sharing vaccines with the world will also restore U.S. credibility on other issues that require unselfish action in pursuit of strategic goals, such as climate change and arms control. The United States can and must become the Vaccine Arsenal of Democracy — or it will waste a historic opportunity for urgent global leadership.