The Biden Administration’s announcement yesterday of its plan to vaccinate the world is an act in keeping with our country’s noblest traditions. No country is better placed to lead an all out attack on Covid-19, a grand global strategy that relies on the resources, skills and deep knowledge that America can bring to bear.
The news that’s capturing headlines today is the President’s commitment to purchasing half a billion doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to donate to nearly 100 countries in need. The doses will be distributed by COVAX, a global philanthropic partnership launched by the WHO to accelerate access to Covid-19 vaccines. It is indeed a significant contribution — the largest single donation of Covid vaccines by any country — which comes on top of a previous promise by the US for 80 million doses. But despite such impressive action, this commitment is just the tip of the iceberg.
More importantly perhaps than the US injection of vaccines for the global supply, is its commitment to building vaccine capacity and manufacturing capabilities around the world, but especially in Africa and South America. Currently, about 80 percent of global vaccine sales come from five large companies who manufacture those vaccines in a select few locations. The challenge with this approach became tragically apparent when the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, recently stopped exporting its Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine so it could deliver more doses to Indians themselves in the midst of their outbreak.
Previously, India was a primary exporter of Covid vaccines across Asia and Africa. When the Institute’s exports slowed and stopped, so too did the vaccine rollout in the 70 countries or so which were receiving those vaccines. America’s commitment to building global capacity for vaccine manufacturing will not just help those countries and others against the current pandemic, but will help us more quickly control future pandemics as local manufacturers are able to ramp up production and distribution to nearby regions most in need.
But even more encouraging than the commitment to invest in local manufacturing, was the President’s promise “to turn manufactured doses into shots in arms to protect people and communities.” Delivered by the leader of any number of other countries with less experience in the global control of infectious diseases, that line could have been considered a throwaway. But delivered by the sitting President of the country that has been the driving force behind control of the world’s last and largest pandemic, it is a powerful statement indeed.
Just last week, we commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the first CDC report of a disease now known as AIDS. In the first twenty years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, around 20 million people died of AIDS, and tens of millions more were living with HIV. By 2003, the pandemic was reaching its peak, with more than 100 thousand people newly infected every single day and almost 3 million killed throughout the year.
2003 also marked the start of a new American initiative called PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. Launched by President George W. Bush, PEPFAR started as a $15 billion initiative that was focused on ending AIDS in the hardest hit countries, mostly in Africa. At the time, the US had already wrestled its own epidemic under control thanks to the discovery of lifesaving treatments, a discovery in which I am proud to say I played a part. In a speech announcing the new program, President Bush made it clear that the effort was not about protecting America and Americans, but about helping a global community in need, “a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts to help the people of Africa.”
Since the program was launched, the United States has dedicated more than $90 billion to controlling the global HIV epidemic and ending AIDS, through PEPFAR anad as the largest donor to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Ours is by far the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease. Two years after PEPFAR was introduced, global deaths due to AIDS and new HIV infections began to decline precipitously and they have continued to decline ever since.
Over the course of the past 18 years, we have learned a tremendous amount about delivering treatments to communities in need. We’ve established key country partnerships, honed our supply chains, sharpened our quality assurance mechanisms, and found ways to deliver tests, treatments, and lifesaving care to the most isolated homes in the most rural of locations. This is what the US is now committing to Covid-19 — not just our resources but our considerable knowledge and networks in disease control. It is, once more, an act of hope and a work of mercy, one that will help safeguard all Americans alongside the wellbeing of the world.
I am as proud today of our country as I have ever been. We are once more steering the world in a new and better direction. Our commitment has already been a catalyst for action by the other G7 leaders, who have gone on to pledge another 500 million doses of the Covid vaccine. Whether that will be accompanied by efforts to increase local manufacturing capacity and improve the infrastructure for delivery is yet to be seen. But there is hope now, as in the past, that where America leads, others will once again follow.