Atul Gawande leads global health and is co-chair of the Covid-19 Task Force at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Nearly a year ago, President Biden announced that the United States would be the “arsenal of vaccines for the world,” just as America served as an arsenal for democracies during World War II. With the president’s leadership and the consistent bipartisan support of Congress, the United States has delivered more than half a billion coronavirus vaccines to 114 lower-income countries free of charge, a historic accomplishment. This example spurred contributions from other wealthy nations and contributed to vaccination of almost 60 percent of the world.
But the global battle against covid-19 is not done. Instead, the challenge has changed. The lowest-income countries, where vaccinations have reached less than 15 percent of people, are now declining free vaccine supply because they don’t have the capacity to get shots in arms fast enough.
We must therefore not just provide an arsenal; to protect our allies against future variants, we must also provide the support they need to ramp up their vaccination campaigns. That effort requires money, and despite generously funding our covid-19 response up to this point, Congress is now failing to provide the resources we need.
I am writing to say: This bodes serious trouble for the world.
Despite a period of relative calm here at home, we’re again seeing cases and hospitalizations spike in Europe and Asia, even in places with higher levels of vaccination than the United States. These surges are due to the more-transmissible BA.2 subvariant of the already highly infectious omicron strain. Without additional funding, we risk not having the tools we need — vaccines, treatments, tests, masks and more — to manage future surges at home. And no less troubling, if we don’t close the vaccine gap between richer and poorer countries, we will give the virus more chances to mutate into a new variant.
Since the virus first emerged, the package of tools we’ve developed to fight it has proved resilient against all coronavirus variants. But there’s no guarantee that will remain true. A new variant that evades our defenses might once again fuel new surges of severe illness and batter the global economy. Helping all countries protect their populations by supercharging vaccination campaigns is our best hope to prevent future strains from emerging and ending this pandemic once and for all.
Turning vaccines into actual vaccinations has been difficult even in wealthy countries, where capable health systems, state-of-the-art cold chains and public awareness campaigns mean that anyone who wants a vaccine can get one. In countries without strong health infrastructure — without enough freezers and refrigerated trucks to keep vaccines from spoiling or enough health-care workers to reach rural populations living miles from the nearest health facility — it’s much tougher. We’ve also seen the same vaccine myths and disinformation that swirl through our media ecosystem spread just as rapidly through social media and hurt public trust abroad.
But we’ve also learned how to successfully tackle these challenges. In December, the Biden administration launched an initiative called Global VAX to help low-income countries train health workers, strengthen health infrastructure and raise vaccine access and awareness. While vaccine coverage in those countries remains far below the global average, the rapid progress we’ve supported in places such as Ivory Coast, Uganda and Zambia show what is possible when governments that are committed to fighting covid-19 have the global support they need.
Without more funding, we would have to halt our plans to expand the Global VAX initiative. The United States would have to turn its back on countries that need urgent help to boost their vaccination rates. And many countries that finally have the vaccines they need to protect their populations would risk seeing them spoil on the tarmac.
We can’t let this happen. It not only endangers people abroad but also risks the health and prosperity of all Americans. The virus is not waiting on Congress to negotiate; it is infecting people and mutating as we speak.
Over the past two years, both parties in Congress have repeatedly stepped up to fight covid-19 in an inspiring show of bipartisan unity. Now, we need our leaders to come together once more. With an effective strategy in place and the tools to transform covid-19 from a killer pandemic to a manageable respiratory disease, the United States has the expertise and capabilities the world needs to win the fight against this virus. We need Congress to let us take the fight to the front lines.