Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP (Getty Images)
The U.S. won’t contribute to an international effort to develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes covid-19, the White House said on Tuesday, because it involves the “corrupt World Health Organization” and China.
Per the Washington Post, the U.S. isn’t participating in the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) Facility, a joint coronavirus vaccine effort run by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and vaccine alliance Gavi that has received statements of interest from 170 countries. The involvement of the WHO has rankled the Trump administration, which is always champing at the bit to invent some new imaginary enemy to blame for a pandemic that’s estimated to have killed at least 184,517 Americans as of Tuesday evening. Trump announced the U.S. would be slashing all funds to the organization earlier this year, lying about its early handling of outbreaks in China and claiming it colluded in a coverup.
“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,” a spokesperson for the White House, Judd Deere, told the Post.
The WHO arguably made missteps in its handling of coronavirus, failing to admit the virus had reached pandemic proportions until well after the writing was on the wall. It has also faced accusations it failed to recognize the Chinese government was covering up early clusters of coronavirus (there’s no evidence the WHO did so deliberately). But the organization is critical to the global fight against the virus.
Covax is intended to coordinate the efforts of signatory nations on developing at least nine coronavirus vaccine candidates and distributing any that work equitably around the world, prioritizing the most vulnerable individuals first. By flipping the WHO and Covax the bird, Trump and crew are doubling down on a bet that the U.S. will develop its own vaccine and then be under less obligation to share it. Trump has promised that a vaccine will be available this year despite a lack of scientific evidence to back the assertion.
According to the Post, one senior administration official as well as a former one confirmed that interest at Health and Human Services and the State Department in participating was overruled by chest-thumping hardliners. If the U.S. fails to develop a vaccine, not participating in Covax could theoretically screw the nation over—but the Post noted success could leave the U.S. positioned for vaccine hoarding:
… 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.
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.
Another possibility is that a U.S. vaccine does pan out, but the country hoards doses, vaccinating a large number of Americans, including those at low risk, while leaving other countries without.
Hoarding is probably the point. The White House has taken a step further than the other wealthy countries and blocs that have spent billions to secure priority access to a vaccine and manufacturing capacity, applying an arms race logic to the matter. The U.S. has largely treated vaccine development as a proprietary matter and bought at least 800 million doses of six vaccines in advance, with the option of purchasing a billion more. One likely outcome is that the U.S.—
and others such as Britain, the European Union, and Japan that are participating in Covax but hedged their bets with massive private buys—corner global manufacturing capacity.
“The implication,” Center for Economic and Policy Research co-founder Dean Baker told Jacobin, “is that we are going to have people in the United States die if it isn’t a U.S. vaccine. And the other way around, we are prepared to let people around the world die because it is a U.S. vaccine.”
There’s still time for the Trump administration to reverse course, the Post wrote, and another face-saving option includes funding it through Gavi, which is heavily supported by the U.S.
According to a running New York Times tracker, there are currently dozens of vaccines in Phase 1 trials, which test for safety, dosage, and immune system stimulation, or further along in the process such as Phase 2 (extended safety testing) or Phase 3 (large clinical trials). Globally, there are 23 vaccine candidates in Phase 1, 14 in Phase 2, 9 in Phase 3, with three of the Phase 3 trials taking place in the U.S.
Three have been approved for limited use in Russia and China, though experts say the process was rushed and those vaccines aren’t actually proven be safe or effective. The Russian government later made the approval contingent on the success of expanded Phase 3 trials after its approach was hammered as reckless by the international medical community. No vaccines have been officially approved by regulatory agencies for widespread usage.
Trump has reportedly been seeking ways to release a vaccine before the November 2020 elections, whether or not it has been adequately tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. According to USA Today, the White House-led partnership to rapidly develop a vaccine (dubbed Operation Warp Speed) has been trying to develop a logistics network that could distribute a vaccine by Nov. 1, two days before the election. FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn recently indicated in an interview with the Financial Times that the agency may issue an emergency use authorization before Phase 3 trials of a U.S.-developed vaccine are complete.
“If a vaccine gets an [emergency use authorization] and it either doesn’t work or is a significant safety risk, it would cause tremendous harm,” Columbia University virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen tweeted on Aug. 30. “If a vaccine isn’t safe, it could harm all the people who take it. Even if it is safe, but isn’t effective, it could indirectly harm people by giving them a false sense of security that they are protected. Both situations would be extraordinarily damaging to public health.”
Rasmussen wrote that releasing a vaccine that wasn’t adequately vetted would be a “catastrophic blow” to public confidence in vaccines and the regulatory process, adding the politically motivated release of such a vaccine could “destroy public trust in medicine as an evidence-based enterprise.”
“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,” Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva co-director Suerie Moon told the Post. “The behavior of countries when it comes to vaccines in this pandemic will have political repercussions beyond public health. 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?”