The Trump administration said it will not join a global effort to develop, manufacture and equitably distribute a coronavirus vaccine, in part because the World Health Organization (WHO) is involved, a decision that could shape the course of the pandemic and the country’s role in health diplomacy.
More than 170 countries are in talks to participate in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) Facility, which aims to speed vaccine development and secure doses for all countries and distribute them to the most high-risk segment of each population.
The plan, which is co-led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, was of interest to some members of the Trump administration and is backed by traditional U.S. allies, including Japan, Germany and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.
But the United States will not participate, in part because the White House does not want to work with the WHO, which President Donald Trump has criticised over what he characterised as its “China-centric” response to the pandemic.
“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organisations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” said Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House.
The Covax decision, which has not been previously reported, is effectively a doubling down by the administration on its bet that the United States will win the vaccine race. It eliminates the chance to secure doses from a pool of promising vaccine candidates – a potentially risky strategy.
“America is taking a huge gamble by taking a go-it-alone strategy,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.
Kendall Hoyt, an assistant professor at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, said it was akin to opting out of an insurance policy.
The United States could be pursuing bilateral deals with drug companies and simultaneously participating in Covax, she said, increasing its odds of getting some doses of the first safe vaccine. “Just from a simple risk management perspective, this [Covax decision] is shortsighted”, she said.
The U.S. move will also shape what happens elsewhere. The idea behind Covax is to discourage hoarding and focus on vaccinating high-risk people in every country first, a strategy that could lead to better health outcomes and lower costs, experts said.
U.S. nonparticipation makes that harder. “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 behaviour of countries when it comes to vaccines in this pandemic will have political repercussions beyond public health,” she added. “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?”
Some members of the Trump administration were interested in a more cooperative approach but were ultimately overruled.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun had interest in exploring some type of role in Covax, a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were ot authorised to discuss the decision-making.
But there was resistance in some corners of the government and a belief that the United States has enough coronavirus vaccine candidates in advanced clinical trials that it can go it alone, according to the official and a former senior administration official who learned about it in private discussions.
The question of who wins the race for a safe vaccine will largely influence how the administration’s “America first” approach to the issue plays out.
Author: Emily Rauhala and Yasmeen Abutaleb
Publication: The Philadelphia Inquirer
Title: Trump administration says U.S. won’t join World Health Organization-linked effort to develop, distribute coronavirus vaccine