The president’s “America First” philosophy courts disaster for entire regions of the world, diplomats warn.
When global leaders gathered virtually last month at the behest of the World Health Organization to commit to distributing a future coronavirus vaccine in an internationally equitable way, the United States didn’t join in.
By NAHAL TOOSI and NATASHA BERTRAND 05/03
Reprinted for educational purposes and social benefit, not for profit.
On Monday, the European Union is hosting a gathering for countries to pledge funding for research into vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But once again the U.S. government isn’t expected to participate.
The Trump administration’s apparent lack of interest in cooperation has alarmed global health officials and diplomats as they seek to end a pandemic that has disabled economies and killed more than 240,000 people worldwide. The concerns are only deepening as President Donald Trump and his aides squabble with China and the WHO over the origins of the virus.
The fear is that Trump will be content with allowing the race to develop and distribute the vaccine to devolve into a global contest — and that poorer countries will be left behind in the rush to procure doses. In essence: that the president’s “America First” view of world affairs as an atavistic scramble for power will lead to unnecessary suffering and death.
“The worst situation would be, if when these tools are available, they go to the highest bidder — that would be terrible for the world,” said Melinda Gates, who, along with her tech entrepreneur husband, Bill, leads a powerful foundation that has devoted billions to health research. “Covid-19 anywhere is Covid-19 everywhere. And that’s why it’s got to take global cooperation.”
The ongoing global scramble for masks, gloves and other personal protective gear offers a harrowing and potentially instructive example. Now imagine, officials and experts say, a similar competition to obtain vaccine doses: It could drag out the health crisis by letting the virus spread for longer than it otherwise might, devastating the very countries least equipped to fight it.
And there are other risks. For one thing, another country, such as China, might develop a vaccine first and find ways to limit access to Americans.
“You would think that, based on the past, that the U.S. would be a galvanizing, lead element in pushing for transparency and early planning” on the vaccine front, said Stephen Morrison, who runs a global health program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t think that’s true in this administration.”
Bloomberg News and other media reports, which described it as an effort to compress the usual process for developing a vaccine into a shorter timeline.
Asked about the project Thursday, Trump said he was in charge of it and that he was not overpromising. “Whatever the maximum is, whatever you can humanly do, we’re going to have,” the president said.
Health officials and analysts caution that it’s too early to go into full-fledged panic about a looming global vaccine fistfight.
An acceptable vaccine could be at least a year to 18 months away; companies across the world, especially in the United States, Europe and China, are in the hunt to find a vaccine, and some trials are already underway. Some diplomats carefully pointed out that by the time vaccines are ready for sale and distribution, Trump may no longer be president, and his “America First” ideas may be shunted aside.
“You have the election in six months’ time — you never know,” an Asian diplomat told POLITICO.
But further blurring the picture is the fact that the global health infrastructure isn’t entirely under the thumb of any one government. It’s a complex amalgam of government bodies, private companies, NGOs, foundations and multilateral partnerships that at times do overlapping work.
There’s no binding treaty or other mechanism that governs how a vaccine will be produced and distributed worldwide. And while the World Health Organization has for decades offered a forum for coordination, discussion and standard-setting, its authority is still limited, including when it comes to private companies with profit motives.
Trump has also dealt a blow to the WHO by recently pausing America’s substantial funding for it. He alleges that the U.N. body effectively helped China cover up the extent of the crisis when the virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year. The WHO’s supporters say Trump is trying to deflect attention from his own downplaying of the crisis early on.