Omicron is ripping through both the United States and Japan, and has delayed the first in-person meeting between Japan’s new prime minister, Kishida Fumio, and U.S. President Joe Biden. As a stopgap measure, the two leaders will meet for a “virtual summit” on January 21. They would be wise to use this to prepare the ground to launch a formal U.S.-Japan Pandemic Partnership to help bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic around the world.
Last April, Biden and then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide announced that they would partner to help the Indo-Pacific region recover from COVID-19. That was smart strategically and befitting of their responsibilities as the world’s first and third largest economies. But since then there has been little visible cooperation outside of some coordination of support for the COVAX vaccine initiative and the announcement of the Quad Vaccine Partnership to provide 1 billion vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific region by the end of 2022.
This limited collaboration comes as the global response to the pandemic continues to flounder. While more than 70 percent of the population of high-income countries have been fully vaccinated, less than 5 percent of people in low-income countries have, and the world’s poorest countries are still short of the PPE, basic diagnostics, oxygen, and other therapeutics that are commonplace elsewhere.
In fact, the international community has failed to meet every major target put forward in the battle against COVID-19. The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator coalition of groups central to the global response estimated that $38 billion in pledges were needed for immunizations, diagnostics, and treatment in the world’s poorest countries in the 2020/2021 period, yet donor countries came up with barely half of that amount. The world’s leading countries endorsed the WHO target of vaccinating at least 40 percent of the population in every country by the end of 2021. However, by year-end, just seven of the 54 countries in Africa had passed that milestone, with less than 10 percent of the continent’s population fully vaccinated.
The United States was largely AWOL on the world stage for the first year of the pandemic, but it stepped up in 2021 to help drive the global response, quietly appropriating more international funding than any other country — a total of $19 billion according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A number of EU countries have also been notably generous with development assistance, but the richest Asian countries, including Japan, have lagged far behind in supporting the global pandemic response.
Unlike the United States, the Japanese government was an early funder of the international COVID-19 response, befitting the country’s stature as a global health leader. Despite this quick start, Japan has ended up committing barely one-tenth that of the United States — under $2 billion — directly for testing, treatment, and vaccines for COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries, while pledging roughly $2 billion more in loans and grants for economic stabilization and other broader support for countries hurt by the pandemic.
Going beyond their moral responsibility as two of the world’s richest countries, Japan and the United States have compelling interests in doing more together to battle COVID-19 internationally. China’s vaccine diplomacy has made it clear there are geostrategic implications to demonstrating that leading democracies can be trusted to help in a time of intense need. And the rise of Delta and Omicron underscore the risk that the longer the pandemic is allowed to spread in the poorest countries, the more likely that a new and more dangerous variant will arise to threaten citizens in Ohio, Osaka, and everywhere else around the world.
That is why launching a new U.S.-Japan Pandemic Partnership is so important. Ideally, it would include five components.
First and foremost is coordinating to provide more funding for the global response. The United States has run through most of the funding it had available, but the Biden administration is weighing going back to Congress to refill the coffers. In the eyes of the global health community, Biden took ownership over the international response with his September 2021 Global COVID-19 Summit and the pledge that the United States would serve as the world’s arsenal of vaccines. He will convene the second COVID-19 Summit in the spring, presumably in mid- to late-March, and that would be a perfect setting for Kishida to match the United States in pledging new funding — ideally $1 to $1.5 billion more — for the multilateral organizations at the core of the global response. Greater Japanese generosity, coordinated with new U.S. commitments, would go a long way in telegraphing genuine bilateral commitment to the fight.
Second, the United States and Japan should work more intensively to expand vaccine manufacturing at home and globally. Both countries conducted a massive mobilization of domestic industries to wage war on one another some 80 years ago, and it is baffling that they have not channeled the same level of energy into the COVID-19 battle to save lives. The Japanese government is hoping to revive its domestic vaccine industry, so this effort can help in more self-interested ways, too.
Third, it would be wise for Japan to join the United States in helping launch a new pandemic preparedness fund. A wide range of global health leaders have concluded that one of the most pressing post-COVID reforms should be the creation of a mechanism to channel resources to strengthen pandemic surveillance efforts and preparedness capacity around the world, and a high-level G-20 panel endorsed plans to create a new funding facility with an annual budget of $10 billion. The U.S. Congress has already appropriated $250 million for this fund, and Biden has promised to seek even more support. It would help advance global health — and be a canny show of unity — for Japan to get in on the ground floor to help co-lead the effort to turn this proposal into reality.
Fourth, Japan has a wealth of experience in advancing universal health coverage (UHC), both at home and abroad. It has a strong track record of helping low and middle-income countries emulate its path to UHC, and it would be smart for USAID to better coordinate with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and support its long-term work to strengthen health systems in order to make societies more resilient to threats like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fifth and finally, the pandemic has underscored how important it is for the United States and Japan to invest in people-to-people exchanges and dialogues. There are a surprising number of Japan-U.S. fellowships and collaborations in the fields of science and medicine that have equipped researchers to share COVID-19 findings quickly, and it is important to reaffirm the joint commitments to the governmental and nongovernmental organizations that host these. At the same time, though, there is a clear need to deepen dialogues and exchanges on the policy side, for instance between experts and policymakers focusing on global health, development, and regulatory issues in each country. Investing in these areas will build up the human infrastructure for future collaboration.
Every major Japan-U.S. communique over the past two years has pledged cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic. Launching a U.S.-Japan Pandemic Partnership and dedicating real resources to these five priorities will allow Biden and Kishida to go beyond lip service and demonstrate that they are serious about harnessing the potential of their alliance.