The White House is letting petty politics squander an opportunity to show global leadership in the pandemic.
By refusing to participate in a multinational alliance working on ways to share and distribute vaccines where most needed, the U.S. is not only coming across as selfish, but it is creating a leadership void that may be filled by rivals.
At least 78 developed countries and economies are participating in the alliance, called Covax. Together, they are working on ways to allocate coronavirus vaccines.
Multilateral agreements are needed to limit hoarding and ensure supplies are deployed fairly and in ways that have the maximum benefit tamping down COVID-19. Developed countries have entered contracts locking up much of the early production, increasing the need for sharing agreements and to prevent price spikes.
Nations must take a holistic view of what’s at stake. If successful vaccines go mostly to people and places with wealth and power, instead of those who need it most to stop the spread, the pandemic and economic crises will drag on longer.
President Donald Trump set back efforts to cooperate when he announced recently that the U.S. will not participate in Covax because the World Health Organization is involved.
Trump has scapegoated the WHO, accusing it of being too cozy with China and halting U.S. support of the organization.
Yet spurning Covax creates a leadership void China or other rivals could potentially fill. It also failed to distract from Trump’s profound failure to promptly and decisively respond after learning about the virus and danger it posed.
All countries have a shared interest in resolving the pandemic and must collaborate, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates said in a new report on how the crisis has halted global progress on multiple fronts.
“There is no such thing as a national solution to a global crisis,” they wrote. “All countries must work together to end the pandemic and begin rebuilding economies. The longer it takes us to realize that, the longer it will take (and the more it will cost) to get back on our feet.”
Historically, the U.S. has been a leader in global health and vaccine programs, sharing expertise and wealth, asserting leadership and building enormous goodwill.
In recent decades that role has been complemented by the Gates Foundation and its crusade to save lives and rid the world of scourges like malaria. It’s a founding funder of two organizations leading the Covax effort, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness in Oslo and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in Geneva.
The U.S. continues to be a major supporter of Gavi and its global vaccination programs. That makes the Covax decision seem more like pique than thoughtful policy.
Covax may not succeed, with or without the U.S., leaving the world without an agreement on COVID-19 vaccine allocation.
That doesn’t bode well for quickly ending the pandemic, or for the world’s ability to solve other big, urgent challenges such as climate change, said Thomas Bollyky, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“If we can’t cooperate in this situation what exactly is going to inspire global cooperation?” he told this board.
The White House should reconsider before the Sept. 18 deadline to pledge support for Covax.
Congress should also assert that the U.S. continues to support multilateral responses to global health crises.
A good start is a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Seattle, the Abiding by U.S. Commitments Act. It would express congressional support for Covax and fulfill the U.S. pledge to fund the World Health Organization.
Cantwell summed the situation up well in her announcement: “Pandemics don’t stop at borders, and neither should the global response.”