The unprecedented wave of COVID-19 now engulfing India, Brazil, and other nations—and the extreme and widening global inequities in access to vaccines—test our collective conscience and threaten our national security. Worsening mass illness and deaths, a preventable humanitarian catastrophe, are destabilizing, and projected to increase. Urgent action is required to stem global circulation of the virus and the consequent inevitable emergence of new variants, which threaten to undermine Americans’ hard-fought but fragile vaccine immunity, putting lives and economic recovery at risk.
President Biden has promised to restore American leadership abroad. The world is now in great need of high-level engagement that up to now has been conspicuously absent—to mitigate death and suffering in the short term, chart a sustained exit from the COVID-19 pandemic in the medium term, and insure against another global pandemic in the long term.
As a global community, we are extremely fortunate that our collective partnerships across the public sector, philanthropy, industry, and academia have yielded multiple safe and highly effective vaccines that are protecting Americans against COVID-19. These vaccines offer an exit route out of the pandemic—but only if they reach a critical mass of people in need across continents, socioeconomic strata, and marginalized populations.
Today, the vaccines are predominantly available in only a few select high-income countries, leaving much of the world unvaccinated and vulnerable. Forty-six percent of Americans and over a quarter of Europeans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but only 14% of those in South America, 4.8% in Asia, and 1.2% in Africa. Addressing this inequity requires an urgent mobilization that adapts the successes achieved in the US to bring the same benefits to all those in dire need as quickly as possible.
American leadership is required to ensure universal global access to high-quality and safe vaccines, support rapid vaccine distribution and administration, and build a sustainable global network of vaccine manufacturing capacity. The Biden administration has already taken several steps in this direction, including providing funding through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for the lower and lower- middle income countries eligible for support under the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC); supporting a temporary waiver of some intellectual property protections for vaccines; and brokering voluntary licensing deals for vaccine manufacturing. The administration and Congress must build on these steps to address critical needs within the next 6-9 months and provide a foundation for broad and sustainable access to vaccines for the long term.
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