Seeing Double: Our Vaccine Regime is Killing People

So far, the United States has administered more than 124 million coronavirus vaccine doses — more than a fourth of the total doses administered worldwide. About a fourth of the country’s population has received at least one dose, and one-eighth of all people in the United States are fully vaccinated. But as we take care to protect our population, we’re screwing the rest of the world. 

See, most countries have vaccinated nowhere near the number of people that the United States has. Many don’t even report any shots. It’s true that there just aren’t enough vaccines for everybody yet. But they’re lagging behind and we’re jumping ahead because we have the power, influence, and cash to skip in line.

Of course, it will take some time to produce the billions of doses needed worldwide. However, the United States and a few other wealthy countries are slowing that production down. Right now, only a few companies have access to the intellectual property — both legally and materially — that we need to produce coronavirus vaccines.

They could share those production secrets and legal rights, allowing other organizations to produce the vaccine themselves, but so far none have. And wealthy countries like ours support that decision in the World Trade Organization (WTO), where a coalition led by India and South Africa is asking for a waiver to the intellectual property agreements that reserve the vaccines for the globally powerful.

This isn’t a hypothetical problem, either. Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, the producers of the three biggest vaccines, are able to make more than 3.5 billion doses in 2021, enough to vaccinate about a fourth of the world’s population by the end of the year. Outside of those companies, the world has the capacity to manufacture another 17 billion doses this year — but only if Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and their host countries share. That’s enough to vaccinate every human being on earth by the end of the year. 

We have a choice to make. Do we care about profits for pharmaceutical companies, or do we care about human lives? Are we so committed to our own greed that we won’t share life-saving information with the rest of the world? Even my notoriously ambivalent co-columnist can see that moral imperative.

Every day that the United States opposes waiving the WTO’s intellectual property laws, it decides to prioritize profits over people. At our current pace, vaccination efforts will barely start in poorer countries in 2021 and won’t finish until at least 2023. By then, millions more will have died. And the virus’s constant spread will allow it to mutate into vaccine-resistant variants that could easily sweep across the world once more. 

This doomsday scenario is entirely preventable, but only if we require the pharmaceutical companies that make Covid vaccines to share their secrets with the world. Some argue that this move would hamper medical technology research in the future, but we aren’t in the future. Thousands of people are dying every day. What’s the point of medical research if we can’t use the miracle drugs we make to save lives?

At the same time that the United States is fighting efforts to expand vaccine production worldwide, it’s holding onto stockpiled vaccines that it can’t use. The AstraZeneca vaccine, which 86 countries have approved, isn’t approved for use in the United States. Yet we have more than 40 million doses just sitting around, most of them bottled and ready to go — doses that we don’t even need.

Our purchase agreements with Moderna and Pfizer account for more than 600 million doses by the end of July, enough to vaccinate almost everyone in the United States. And that’s not even including Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine. Our contracts with AstraZeneca, which account for another 300 million doses, are extraneous. We can’t use that vaccine now and we won’t need it later.

We should send all of these unused vaccines to places that can immediately use them to vaccinate people. Though the United States has pledged to send a few million of these doses to Canada and Mexico, that isn’t nearly enough. We’re in a race against Covid’s new, more dangerous variants. We fall behind when vaccines sit on shelves, and falling behind means more preventable cases and deaths.

Though we like to act like we are, the United States isn’t alone in defeating this virus. Just as it’s a collective responsibility to wear masks, socially distance and isolate if we get sick, the United States has a responsibility to the world to help by sharing its resources — beating this virus must be an international project. And if you think that’s asking too much, then we can at least agree that the United States shouldn’t sabotage global vaccine efforts by hoarding and hiding its vaccines.

Giving our unneeded vaccines to those who can use them will save lives, and sharing vaccine secrets will save even more. The choice — between killing people and saving them — should be clear. It’s up to the new administration to make it.