Far from supporting more equitable vaccine distribution around the world, the U.S. under Biden is continuing to undermine it, to the detriment of poorer nations, as well as itself.
To be fair to the U.S., it’s not alone. High-income countries, virtually all of which have signed on to COVAX, have secured nearly 60 percent of the 7.2 billion vaccine doses purchased so far, according to Duke, despite representing just 16 percent of the global population. Though many of these countries have reserved enough doses to inoculate their population several times over, that hasn’t prevented them from sparring over who gets the doses first. The European Union, in an apparent bid to make up for the shortfall in its own vaccine supply, even went so far as to announce export controls on doses leaving the bloc—a decision that was quickly reversed following an uproar.
While nothing is inherently wrong with wealthy countries wanting to secure enough supply to protect their population, their actions become an issue when they prevent low- and middle-income countries from doing the same. Early on in the pandemic, experts warned that vaccine nationalism—in which countries prioritize their own domestic needs at the expense of everyone else—would hinder global economic recovery and prolong the public-health crisis. Nearly a year on, those concerns have largely been borne out: High-income countries that bought themselves to the front of the vaccine line have all but cleared the shelves, leaving little in the way of short-term supply for the world’s poorest countries, the large majority of which haven’t received any vaccine doses. At the same time, uncontrolled outbreaks in Brazil, Britain, and South Africa have spurred new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus that have since spread around the world, proving that if the virus is left endemic anywhere, it can still pose a threat everywhere.
Read: The Brazil variant is exposing the world’s vulnerability
Until recently, the U.S. didn’t feign to care about equal distribution. As with most of its policies, the Trump administration opted for an “America First” approach to public health, prioritizing domestic vaccination efforts over multilateral initiatives. In keeping with this approach, one of Trump’s final acts as president was an attempt to scrap $4 billion in funding earmarked for Gavi—one of the organizations leading COVAX alongside the WHO—from Congress’s recent spending bill. That request was ultimately rebuffed.
Though Biden has sought to reverse many of Trump’s policies, the U.S.’s commitment to prioritizing its own vaccine procurement remains unchanged. From a global-distribution standpoint, the U.S. joining COVAX doesn’t change the fact that most wealthy countries have already reserved the lion’s share of the world’s available vaccine supply. “We’re sort of past trying to say, ‘Okay rich countries, stop buying doses,’” Andrea Taylor, the assistant director of programs at Duke’s Global Health Innovation Center, told me. As far as equitable access is concerned, “that ship has sailed.”