Sep 1, 2020 - Health

U.S. won't join WHO-led efforts to secure coronavirus vaccine

donald trump

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Trump administration has decided to go it alone on developing and distributing a coronavirus vaccine, after refusing to join the World Health Organization's efforts to provide equitable doses for all countries, the Washington Post reports.

Why it matters: The U.S. is betting it will win the race for a coronavirus vaccine without any help from foreign countries.

  • “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 Judd Deere, a spokesperson for the White House.

State of play: 172 countries have submitted “expressions of interest” in the COVAX initiative, led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi.

  • They hope to avoid an outcome where access to vaccines is initially limited to countries that produce them or can afford to buy them at scale.
  • The idea is that rich and middle-income countries will help fund the development of at least nine vaccine candidates. Once one of those vaccines is approved, it will be distributed globally according to need, including to poorer countries.
  • Distribution will be based on population size, with health care workers and vulnerable people prioritized and a portion kept in reserve to be deployed to hot spots.
  • The groups behind COVAX are aiming to avoid a higher-stakes repeat of the 2009 H1N1 vaccine, which was secured almost entirely by rich countries.

But the U.S. and several other rich countries or blocs — the U.K., EU, Japan — have also been spending billions of dollars to ensure their access to the leading vaccine candidates.

  • Given the limits on global manufacturing capacity, those deals could undermine the effectiveness of the global initiative.

What to watch: While countries like the U.K. and Japan have also expressed interest in the COVAX initiative, the U.S. is going it entirely alone.

  • It has purchased a combined 800 million doses of six vaccines, with the option to buy 1 billion more, per Nature.
  • The Trump administration has compared its approach to that of an airplane passenger securing their oxygen mask before helping others, Thomas Bollyky and Chad Bown write in Foreign Affairs — though they note that "airplane oxygen masks do not drop only in first class."

Yes, but: "An unlikely worst-case scenario, experts said, is that none of the U.S. vaccine candidates are viable, leaving the United States with no option since it has shunned the COVAX effort," per the Post.

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