Since the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and Japan after World War II, the U.S. has exhibited global leadership on many different fronts. But failure by the U.S. to distribute sufficient Covid-19 vaccines worldwide is costing the country its global reputation — and there will likely be economic fallout, as well. The loss of the U.S.’s global leadership could have lasting impacts on global peace and prosperity. Madeleine Albright famously called the U.S. “the world’s indispensable nation” during her tenure as Ambassador to the United Nations. However, when we look at the U.S.’s track record thus far in dispensing doses of Covid vaccines to the developing nations, the country no longer fits that description. Instead, China has taken the lead on sharing doses of its vaccines with the developing world. This is a propagandistic victory for China, even though vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm reportedly have lower efficacy than the vaccines from Pfizer PFE +0.3% and Moderna.
China plans to export two billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine this year, including 770 million doses it says it has shipped already. In contrast, the U.S. has shipped 110 million doses worldwide. In addition, in June, the U.S. pledged to donate 500 million Covid-19 vaccine doses from Pfizer to lower-income countries. Compared to a global population of nearly 8 billion people, the U.S.’s pledge falls far short of what is needed. According to Our World in Data, 30.2% of the world population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19, and only 15.6% is fully vaccinated. In low-income countries, however, just 1.1% of the population has received one dose.
Vaccine inequity is a global reality. While the U.S. is trying to incentivize Americans to get vaccinated, people in developing countries are protesting a lack of access. As Forbes observed, Covid vaccine distribution has been “extremely uneven.” The U.S. needs to step up its global vaccine sharing, not only to keep pace with China, but also to ensure Covid-19 inoculations do not become yet another divide between “have” and “have-not” nations.
The vaccine divide is producing an uneven map of global economic recovery, “a lopsided global recovery” that is widening the economic gap between rich and poor countries, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Overall, the IMF projects a global economic growth rate of 6 percent in 2021, but that is largely due to the economic recovery in larger, developed nations; the expected 2021 growth rate for low-income, developing countries is only 3.9 percent. IMF’s chief economist, Gita Gopinath, has called for “multilateral action” to promote “rapid, worldwide access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.” Among the benefits of such actions, Gopinath added, would be adding “trillions of dollars to global economic growth.”
The IMF has put forth a proposal to end the pandemic that calls for vaccinating at least 40 percent of the population of every country by year-end, and at least 60 percent by mid-2022. To reach this goal, at least one billion vaccine doses would need to be shared this year. Other steps include vaccine producers prioritizing deliveries to developing countries and removing trade restrictions on vaccine inputs and finished vaccines. Importantly, regional vaccine capacity would need to be established to ensure sufficient production and distribution in markets around the world. Increasing global access to vaccines clearly falls on the shoulders of the U.S. and other developed nations. One way to achieve quicker global vaccine distribution would be for developed nations to support COVAX, a partnership of several global health organizations, which could accelerate the development and manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines and improve fair and equitable access worldwide.
The U.S. government could also apply pressure on the major Covid vaccine makers to release their patents and share their technology, allow regional production of the vaccines to improve global access, and also lower the price of their vaccines. Pharma companies such as Pfizer and Moderna have been reaping windfall profits from the sale of vaccines. To illustrate, in the first three months of the year alone, Pfizer generated $3.5 billion in revenue from the Covid vaccines—nearly one-quarter of its total revenue. Moderna’s revenues from the vaccine totaled $1.73 billion in the first quarter of 2021, and it has projected Covid-19 vaccine sales of $19.2 billion this year. International business leaders have a role as well, particularly to help employees and their dependents around the globe to get vaccinated. From a humanitarian perspective, such efforts will help secure greater equity in vaccine supplies worldwide. From a business perspective, it could very well help preserve the security of the global supply chain and contribute to worldwide economic growth.
The U.S. has a history of global leadership and distributing the vaccine as widely as possible would add to that legacy. While the U.S. has lagged China in dispensing vaccines to developing countries, there is still time to pick up the slack. Everyone would benefit from wide vaccine distribution in the global community, in terms of health, wellness, and economic growth.