In his Washington Post column Fareed Zakaria chides “rich countries” for not doing enough to inoculate the entire world against COVID-19, blaming the emergence of the omicron variant of the virus on that failure:
It’s estimated that 100 million of the doses stored by Western countries will expire and have to be thrown away by the end of the year if they are not used — and yet they sit stockpiled while the poorest 1.6 billion people in the world have only about 5 percent of the world’s vaccinations.
This is not a case of global institutions failing. There exists an effective mechanism to share and distribute the vaccines worldwide, COVAX, set up by a group of international health organizations. But rich countries have been stingy about actually making donations. The United States pledged the most — 1.2 billion doses — but so far has delivered just around 280 million. The European Union, Iceland and Norway have collectively pledged about 500 million doses and delivered about 112 million. China has recently increased its pledge to 850 million doses, up from 100 million, and has delivered about 89 million. As a result, 82 countries are at risk of falling short of the World Health Organization’s goal of vaccinating 40 percent of every country’s population by the end of the year, which means that the virus will keep replicating and mutating freely among billions of people. What is the chance that we will not see another variant in the next year?
To some extent I agree with him. Nearly a year ago I said that the U. S. should be sending vaccine to Mexico and the Central American countries as it became available. But I do have two problems with his complaint.
First, the problem isn’t “rich countries” so much as “rich countries other than the U. S.”. We’ve given twice as much vaccine to COVAX as Europe and by “Europe” I largely mean Germany. Germany and the U. S. have about the same vaccination rates so that’s no explanation for Germany’s failure. And China, true to form, has been much better at making pledges than at fulfilling them.
But it’s more complicated than that. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have storage requirements that make them impractical for use in the poorest countries in the world and the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines, which just require normal refrigeration, aren’t as effective as the Pfizer and Moderna. If we weren’t being berated for not delivering vaccines we’d be scolded for foisting off substandard vaccines on other countries.
Here’s my suggestion. President Biden should order one of the Navy’s hospital ships to be fitted to store the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines properly and make a tour of ports in Mexico and Central America, inoculating anyone who presents themselves (in an orderly fashion, of course). Of course, that would need to be cleared with the authorities in those countries. If they’re turned down, they could go to other countries.