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International News

US Refuses to Join Effort to Develop, Distribute Vaccine Because WHO Is Involved

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US Refuses to Join Effort to Develop, Distribute Vaccine Because WHO Is Involved

2020-09-02 20:52:28

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Stock vaccine image (Image source: Public domain)


The Trump administration is doubling down on its efforts to pull out of the World Health Organization. Not only is it leaving in the middle of a pandemic, but it is also refusing to join a global effort to develop, manufacture, and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, preferring instead to go it alone.

More than 170 countries are discussing joining the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) Facility. The goal is to speed up development of a vaccine, get enough doses for all the countries involved, then distribute it to the most high-risk people in each country.

The vaccine alliance is co-led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and  Gavi and was of interest to some in the Trump administration. It's backed by Japan, Germany, and the European Commission.

The U.S. will not be participating, however, partially because of the White House's reluctance to work with the WHO. Donald Trump has criticized it often and eventually insisted on pulling the U.S. out of the organization.

"The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China," said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

"America is taking a huge gamble by taking a go-it-alone strategy," said Georgetown University professor of global health law Lawrence Gostin."

Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine assistant professor, Kendall Hoyt, compared the U.S. decision to opting out of an insurance policy. She believes that the U.S. could be pursuing it in multiple directions, going after deals with drug companies while also participating in Covax to increase the odds that the country will be among the first to get the vaccine.

"Just from a simple risk-management perspective, this [Covax decision) is shortsighted," she said.

It's not just affecting the U.S. either, as it will shape what happens in other countries. The goal of Covax is to discourage hoarding of the virus and focus on vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country first, which could lead to better outcomes and lower costs, according to experts.

But the U.S. not participating makes that goal difficult to achieve. "When the U.S. says it is not going to participate in any sort of multilateral effort to secure vaccines, it's a real blow," said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

"The behavior of countries when it comes to vaccines in this pandemic will have political repercussions beyond public health," added Moon. "It's about: are you a reliable partner, or at the end of the day, are you going to keep all your toys for yourself?"

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun initially wanted to be included in some way in Covax, said a senior administration official. But some in the government resisted, and there was a belief that the U.S. has enough vaccine candidates that it can do this on its own.

Experts believe a worst-case scenario, that is unlikely to play out, would be if none of the U.S. vaccine candidates are viable. This would leave the U.S. without options, as it would be too late to join Covax. Another possibility is a U.S. vaccine working and the country hoarding it instead of helping out other countries.

Experts, though, believe the new vaccine is unlikely to offer complete protection to everyone. A portion of the population will still be vulnerable as tourism and trade pick up again.

Additionally, it won't really help much if the U.S. gets the vaccine and gets the country healthy. Large parts of the world will still be shut down and the global economy affected. The United States still won't be able to go back to normal.

The WHO has pushed countries to pursue their own strategies and join Covax. "By joining the facility at the same time that you do bilateral deals, you're actually betting on a larger number of vaccine candidates," said Mariângela Simao, a WHO assistant director general for drug and vaccine access, last month. This could be the best all-around decision.

The director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, J. Stephen Morrison, said the White House could still change its mind and join Covax. It could even allow the Senate to fund the initiative through Gavi. 

"This just shows how awkward, contradictory, and self-defeating all of this is," he said. "For the U.S. to terminate its relationship with the WHO in the middle of a pandemic is going to create an endless stream of self-defeating moments."

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