Declaring “America is back,” President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the world as an active and engaged nation, committed to working with our allies and partners to tackle the most pressing issues facing us today. He has nominated a seasoned foreign policy team to help overcome the damage done by four years of “America First” retrenchment.
There are many challenges that will vie for the new team’s immediate attention. The mounting crisis with Iran following the assassination of its top nuclear scientist and recent threats to boost enrichment and bar inspections soon after Biden takes office poses an immediate test of the team’s diplomatic skills. So will forging an integrated China strategy, rebuilding frayed alliances and partnerships, ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq responsibly and addressing climate change.
Yet, urgent as these and other issues are, the most immediate priority — not only at home, but also abroad — will be to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. By the time Biden takes office on Jan. 20, COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths likely will have reached dizzying heights — with deaths alone projected to increase by 50% between now and then, both globally and in the United States.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, last weekend predicted a “surge upon a surge” in the weeks following Thanksgiving get-togethers. And Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that the next three months “will be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”
But the United States is hardly alone in facing a dire few months. Case numbers have spiked in many other parts of the world — with a third of all cases, worldwide, occurring just last month. In Europe, an astonishing 40% of all recorded infections happened in November alone. Last month also set record levels of fatalities, accounting for one-third of the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe, and 20% worldwide.
Against this grim picture, there is good news on the vaccine front. Clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of a number of new vaccines, including those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, which were 95% effective. Regulators in the United States and other countries are moving quickly to approve their use, and by the end of the year millions of high-risk individuals will likely be able to get their first shot.
Other trials offer hope for additional vaccines, including some that are more easily produced and distributed than the first batch of vaccines, which require deep-cold storage after production.
The successful development of a new vaccine of a disease whose existence was unknown even a year ago represents a triumph of science and government. It took an unprecedented scientific effort, exploring multiple avenues of research and the round-the-clock dedication of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of scientists. Government funding was also crucial, both to support underlying research and to speed production by guaranteeing large-scale purchases of vaccines.
The Trump administration deserves credit here. Its Operation Warp Speed funneled billions of dollars to develop multiple vaccines, helped set up production facilities and developed distribution plans, so that once proved effective, a vaccine would quickly be available for use. Other countries also supported national development efforts, while many more committed to purchasing large quantities of vaccines to speed production and lower development costs and risks.
The result of this extraordinary effort was to develop an effective vaccine in record time. The challenge now is to get a vaccine into the arms of as many people as quickly as possible. And here, the Trump administration has fallen down.
As with so much of his foreign policy, Trump decided to go it alone. Operation Warp Speed is focused solely on developing and distributing vaccines for the U.S. population. That, of course, needs to be the priority. But with a pandemic, Americans won’t truly be safe until everyone is safe.
That reality is what lies behind a 180-plus nation initiative to speed the development, production and distribution of a vaccine to defeat this deadly global disease. This COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, or COVAX, is supported by all of America’s traditional allies, as well as China (though not Russia), and includes almost all of the developing world, which will have subsidized access to any vaccines. It’s a global response to a global emergency. Trump refused to join this important effort.
Biden needs to make clear he opposes the vaccine nationalism practiced by his predecessor. He has already committed to return to the World Health Organization, from which Trump withdrew, on his first day in office. He should also announce that the United States will join the COVAX initiative. Nothing will say more clearly that America is rejoining the world than committing to work with others to eradicate this disease around the globe.
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. This piece first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.