Joe Biden's 'America First' COVID-19 vaccine policy undercuts US president's call for global partnership

From talks with Iran to the war in Afghanistan and climate change, the US president has urged cooperation among Western allies on a whole host of issues. Except one: Vaccine nationalism

FP Staff March 10, 2021 22:21:03 IST
Joe Biden's 'America First' COVID-19 vaccine policy undercuts US president's call for global partnership

File image of Joe Biden. By Erin Schaff © 2020 The New York Times

'America is back'.

That has been the refrain from President Joe Biden since he took office on 20 January.

One could practically hear the sighs of relief emenating from capitals around the world, especially America's European allies, when Biden repeatedly and publicly repudiated the 'America First' foreign policy and the 'transactional approach' espoused by his predecessor Donald Trump.

From talks with Iran to the war in Afghanistan and climate change, the US president has urged cooperation among Western allies on a whole host of issues.

However, Biden has remained silent on one important issue, perhaps the defining issue of 2021: Vaccine nationalism.

In a brief speech at the White House, Biden announced that his administration was "on track" to have enough supply of coronavirus vaccines "for every adult in America by the end of May."

This is in line with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, telling reporters that Biden's first priority remains “ensuring every American is vaccinated.”

This came after Biden, in February, invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law, in order to ramp up supplies. A move that was much celebrated by the US media.

But more on that later.

As this tweet on Tuesday illustrates, the US ranks fourth on the list of countries when it comes to coronavirus vaccine doses administered per 100 people.

Even at a cursory glance at the top ten countries, the US, with its 330 million population pops out when it comes to vaccine doses administered.

And the Biden administration has already ordered more than 20 percent of the world’s vaccines in Phase 3 trials, almost enough to immunise the entire population of India.

Which is great for America

But how is the rest of the world, particularly the less-developed countries, faring?

As per UNAIDS, The People’s Vaccine Alliance – a group of campaigning organisations including Oxfam, Frontline AIDS, UNAIDS, Global Justice Now and the Yunus Centre –has warned that while rich nations are vaccinating citizens at the rate of one person per second over the past month, the majority of developing countries are yet to administer a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Meanwhile, the US and UK are among the world's developed nations blocking a proposal at the World Trade Organisation backed by India and South Africa and many other countries to waive Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for COVID-19 vaccine patents.

This after the WHO warned that certain countries are pursuing deals with drug companies that threaten the supply of the COVAX programme for poor and middle-income countries. The same COVAX to which the Biden administration pledged $2 billion back in February.

"We can’t beat COVID without vaccine equity. Our world will not recover fast enough without vaccine equity, this is clear,” WHO director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“We have made great progress. But that progress is fragile. We need to accelerate the supply and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and we cannot do that if some countries continue to approach manufacturers who are producing vaccines that COVAX is counting on.”

As this Bloomberg piece rightly noted, "Biden’s triumphalism was more than a little grating, considering that the US, alongside most other rich countries, has essentially chosen to corner the market on shots that are desperately needed elsewhere."

Meanwhile, India and China, two countries with populations that far exceed the USA, are going all in trying to one-up each other when it comes to 'vaccine diplomacy'.

China, which had a headstart at the outset of the pandemic with the distribution of masks, has been supplying several countries with vaccines, sometimes for free. Some 2,00000 doses each went to Algeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, 5,00000 to Pakistan and 7,50,000 to the Dominican Republic.

"China managed to present itself as a champion of the southern countries at a time when the north showed complete selfishness," Bertrand Badie, a professor for international relations at Sciences-Po university in Paris, told AFP.

India has thus far, provided 56 lakh doses of coronavirus vaccines under grants assistance to a number of countries including Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Seychelles, as per PTI.

And remember the Defense Production Act that Biden invoked?

Well, the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, has sought the Centre's intervention so as to enable the firm to import essential raw materials from the US for uninterrupted manufacturing and supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Anup Wadhawan and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the director of the government and regulatory affairs department at Pune-based SII said the US government invoking the Defence Production Act has led to the firm facing difficulties in importing necessary products like cell culture media, raw material, single-use tubing assemblies and some speciality chemicals from the US.

Oops. But while this may be a mere side-effect of Biden invoking the Defence Production Act, the fact remains that America's actions are actively hindering the efforts of other countries, especially developing nations, to procure enough COVID-19 vaccines to bring the pandemic to heel.

"Many are now asking what kind of superpower the US. hopes to be. How can the US reclaim the mantle of global leadership if Biden won’t even try to make the case domestically for a more generous attitude toward the rest of the world?" the Bloomberg piece asked.

The short answer is that it can't.

But backing India and South Africa's proposal to waive TRIPS so that more countries can have equitable access to coronavirus related medicines would be a good start.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date:

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