Should the United States Vaccinate the Rest of the World?
Brian Carpenter | July 2021
A woman receives the Astrazeneca vaccine in the Province of Camarines Sur, The Philippines, March 2021
or the first year of the pandemic, the United States surged ahead of the rest of the world in terms of COVID-19 cases and deaths. At the start of the new year, however, American coronavirus cases began to plummet as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were granted FDA approval and became more widely available. The U.S. currently has the 13th-highest vaccination rate in the world. But, as U.S. vaccination rates have slowed due to dwindling demand, a debate emerged about what steps the country should take in its efforts to combat coronavirus infections globally.
The United States recently backed a WTO proposal to waive intellectual property protections in order to aid developing nations’ fight against the coronavirus. The European Union fought against this proposal, hurting the proposal’s chances for substantial worldwide impact. One Indian pharmaceutical CEO argued that waiving vaccine property rights would not lead to short-run growth in vaccination rates, but would help in the long run.
Others proposed that the United States should fund the vaccination of other nations. This proposal garnered bipartisan support with those in favor citing various reasons why they support the U.S. vaccinating the world. While most Americans support international spending to aid other countries in times of need, how much aid, and to whom the United States gives it, continues to be a point of contention.
American Foreign Aid: A Background
According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the average American believes that the United States spends more than 30% of the federal budget on foreign aid, while nearly 50% of Americans believe that the United States spends too much on foreign aid.
In reality, the United States spends less than 1% of the federal budget on foreign aid. While we spend more money on such aid than any other nation, we spend a smaller proportion of our gross national product (GNP) on aid than many other wealthy countries. These misnomers and confusions about American aid spending are far from the only reasons for which the country receives criticism.
The effectiveness of American foreign aid and, at times, the places aid went, have often been launch points for criticism. These criticisms are not without merit. The U.S. has a history of engaging in foreign aid practices that reinforce imperialistic ideals of economic control and aid non-humanitarian regimes that support American initiatives.
Yet despite the critics, the history of American aid is far from entirely negative. United States foreign aid programs have had numerous success stories where aid mitigated the effects of natural disasters, eradicated polio in Africa, and bolstered economic development and democracy. These success stories offer hope that a U.S.-led push to vaccinate the world is not only attainable but necessary.
Comparing a Push to Vaccinate the World to Previous Foreign Aid Initiatives
The previous American foreign aid effort offering the most similarity to a campaign to vaccinate the world against COVID-19 is the Malaria Vaccine Development Program (MVDP), an effort dating back five decades. Malaria reduction efforts in the United States in 2016 cost $2.7 billion, a seemingly large number, but when put in context of the federal budget it comes to less than 0.07% of federal government expenditures. The MVDP has been largely successful, contributing to a decline in global malaria morbidity and mortality.
The Argument for a Vaccination Campaign
While previous public health initiatives offer a glimpse of what an American-led effort to vaccinate the world might look like, a potential COVID-19 vaccine campaign offers unparalleled additional compounding benefits to the United States. Oftentimes, for instance, foreign aid efforts can bolster economic and national security interests by supporting regional and global stability.
A push to vaccinate the world also possesses fewer controversial elements than other foreign aid initiatives. For example, claims of economic distortion at the expense of local residents would be invalid, as a vaccination campaign would be issued solely to the benefit of local residents.
This push would not be free of one of the most common critiques of foreign aid, however, specifically regarding budgetary concerns. According to Public Citizen, it would cost $25 billion for the United States to produce enough vaccines on its own to vaccinate lower- and middle-income countries. For some perspective, the U.S. spent $49 billion on foreign aid in 2016.
Vaccinating the world would provide countless benefits for the United States from the standpoint of both public health and economics. For starters, vaccinating the world helps better ensure that currently issued COVID-19 vaccines remain effective. As long as a large portion of the world remains unvaccinated, COVID-19 will be able to spread, turning into new variants that strain existing vaccines’ protection capabilities. In Israel, for example, allegedly up to 50% of those recently infected with the virus’s Delta variant have already been vaccinated.
What’s more, the United States has seen a decrease in the demand for vaccines in recent months, with many Americans claiming they want “to wait and see.” If Americans see the rest of the world safely vaccinated it could help to reduce vaccine hesitancy in the United States by normalizing the phenomenon.
A global vaccination campaign would benefit both American and global health while also bolstering the American and global economies. Such a plan would help the United States return to normal international trade activity. Furthermore, a global vaccine campaign reduces the likelihood that there will be additional need for economic stimulus packages.
President Biden’s most recent economic stimulus package totaled over $5 trillion; spending the forecasted $25 billion cost to vaccinate the globe would reduce the likelihood of the federal government having to spend potentially large sums in combating the international economic harms of another wave down the road, a small price in comparison.
In order to save American taxpayer dollars, the United States could also lead an effort to waive intellectual property rights on the vaccines. But this measure has its own long-term costs, including less production incentives and a potential lack of necessity, due to other factors, including raw materials shortages and limits on manufacturing capacity, potentially causing the real issue here.
An American-led effort to vaccinate the world will undoubtedly cost the United States financially. When comparing it with the potential harms of not doing so, however, the cost seems like a small price to pay. A vaccination campaign has the potential to restore historic levels of international trade, promote global stability, and prevent the rise of nefarious viral variants, bringing our war with the coronavirus to a quicker end.
Considering these facts, a potential U.S.-led vaccination program looks less like a moral responsibility and more like a mutually beneficial necessity.