The Benefits of U.S. Vaccine Diplomacy

By Christine Parthemore

On August 3rd, the White House announced that it had surpassed 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses donated and shipped to other nations. The U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has been tweeting a steady stream of updates on donated vaccines arriving to destinations around the world. 

Even once this pandemic is eventually under control, the United States should be sure that vaccine diplomacy carries forward in sustained, long-term efforts. Infectious diseases spreading around the world affect Americans, including as dangerous mutations arise in areas where they are not addressed fast enough, as COVID-19 and the rising toll of its delta variant shows starkly. Anger at the United States rose around the world in Spring 2021 as the nation was accused of moving too slowly to share its highly-effective vaccines globally. 

On August 5th, science advisor to the President and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Eric Lander set a U.S. target for preventing future pandemics in a Washington Post op-ed: “The capability to design, test and approve safe and effective vaccines within 100 days of detecting a pandemic threat (for covid-19, that would have meant May 2020); manufacture enough doses to supply the world within 200 days.” 

These are the right goals (albeit noting that those timelines should become even more ambitious in the coming years). Added to them must be continuing the diplomatic legwork required to turn that rapid vaccine manufacturing into distribution for global pandemic prevention.

Sharing vaccines and medications can be complicated. Each country has its own regulatory process for approving their use. Some countries vary in dosage and other use recommendations. Many protect or favor their domestic pharmaceutical industries in ways that can slow imports. Even the mundane paperwork aspects can take a long time. 

As the United States learned in working to provide pharmaceutical assistance to Japan after the Fukushima-Dai-ichi nuclear accident in 2011, this can become even harder during a crisis. Moving forward, continuing the long-term U.S support to efforts like the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi)—and expanding upon them—will be important to facilitating faster vaccine donations to help stop future outbreaks from reaching pandemic scale. 

The United States also has smart, multipurpose options for creating new vaccine supplies at the speed Lander recommends. 

Earlier this year we recommended that the Department of Defense’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program—along with counterparts in other agencies and international entities—conduct an annual exercise program to continually improve rapid disease detection, fast development of new diagnostic tests, and rapid development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics. As we suggested, 

Rapid response platform technologies, such as those used to create some types of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, should naturally be a component of such a development and testing program. Additional priorities may include [b]uilding additional “Advanced Development and Manufacturing” facilities that are versatile and can be used for rapidly responding to a biological weapons attack or infectious disease outbreak. Ideally, this infrastructure will be kept warm by being used in exercises or in responding to natural disease outbreaks or even seasonal influenza.” 

Such an annual program would help keep the U.S. bio economy healthy, raise supply chain issues so that they can be addressed before crises strike, and allow experts to continually improve and speed up the development and production of safe and effective vaccines. 

Vaccines and medications developed via such an annual exercise program could be shared around the world in order to stop diseases, help people around the world, and identify ways to make that process smoother and faster for preventing future pandemics. This should be a key component of U.S. policy in the years to come. COVID-19 will not be the last time vaccine diplomacy is required, and in the future we can be far better prepared to execute it effectively.


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