By Lillian Parr
As COVID-19 cases fall in most parts of the U.S. and a sense of normalcy begins to return, it is tempting to think that the pandemic is no longer a major threat. However, this is not the first time the U.S. has been lulled into a false sense of security. Before the Delta variant took hold in the summer of 2021, many Americans felt that the end of the pandemic was right around the corner. Even as Delta began to pick up steam in July 2021, President Biden made remarks that the nation had “gained the upper hand on the virus,” and that it would “no longer control our lives.” Though President Biden also cited the need for continued efforts against COVID-19, the gravity of Delta was not fully understood or appreciated at the time.
It is very possible that we are currently making the same mistake. The rapidly transmissible Omicron sublineage BA.2 is showing up in increasing concentrations in wastewater, and has contributed to growing case numbers in several regions, potentially indicating that the overall downward trend in U.S. cases is soon to reverse. Whether or not BA.2 causes a major surge, future variants could emerge at any time given that many activities and behaviors are returning to patterns similar to before the pandemic first spread. As such, staying vigilant and maintaining funding for COVID-19 prevention and mitigation is essential.
Unfortunately, a recently passed government spending package does not reflect this reality. The bill, passed by Congress and signed into law in March, does not have any dedicated funding for combatting the virus—the proposed sum of $15.6 billion was cut as Congress could not agree where to source the money. This cut will have detrimental effects to making progress against the virus in myriad ways—for instance, the federal government will be unable to purchase sufficient monoclonal antibodies for distribution to states—and without additional action, funds will run out as soon as May this year. In addition, without these funds, testing capacity will fall.
The cut is also a blow to international efforts as well. In particular, this lack of funding is devastating for agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Global VAX program, a program that has responded in more than 120 countries to “support health systems with vaccine delivery and fight COVID-19 around the world.”
Given the global nature of the pandemic, health leaders note that defeating COVID-19 requires global, equitable access to vaccines. Unfortunately, current levels of global SARS-CoV-2 vaccination are low: just 13% of people in low-income countries are vaccinated, leaving wide gaps for dangerous variants to emerge. Increasing access to vaccines across the globe benefits everyone—both protecting people in developing countries from the morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19, as well as decreasing the likelihood that a new vaccine- or treatment-resistant strain can emerge and circulate globally.
In addition to protecting global health, a recent CSR report notes how investing in vaccine distribution has geopolitical implications. The slow rollout and perceived hoarding of vaccines in the United States and other developed nations have left developing countries frustrated and distrustful of the United States and other nations manufacturing vaccines. These perceptions have very real implications, such as possibly making it more difficult for the United States to work collaboratively with these states, and may make some developing countries more likely to strengthen relationships with other major geopolitical powers. China, for example, was an early leader in distributing vaccines to developing countries—by mid-May 2021, China had donated 250 million vaccine doses, while the U.S. did not become a major player in vaccine diplomacy until June 2021. China is still the main supplier of vaccines to South America, despite close U.S. relationships with the region.
Without additional funding, USAID will be unable to make continued progress in this area, and further complicate ongoing efforts to improve vaccine storage, transportation, and delivery. This is highlighted by recent statements from USAID Administrator Samantha Power to Congress: “without additional funding to support getting shots into arms, USAID will have to curtail our growing efforts to turn vaccines into vaccinations—just as countries are finally gaining access to the vaccine supplies needed to protect their citizens.”
Until a large percentage of the world is vaccinated, new variants will likely continue to emerge and threaten both global and domestic health, and developing countries are unlikely to reach vaccination goals without the aid of the United States and its allies. Moving forward, policymakers must not underestimate the importance of funding USAID’s vaccine distribution efforts, along with domestic programs, lest the progress made in stemming COVID-19 will be lost.