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Time for U.S. to share vaccines

Funeral pyres of patients killed by COVID-19 at

Funeral pyres of patients killed by COVID-19 at a crematorium on Saturday in New Delhi, India. Credit: Getty Images/Anindito Mukherjee

The Biden administration’s plan to share tens of millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses is just a start. Every day, the United States and other wealthy nations can prevent needless death and suffering by quickly moving extra supplies of the drugs to the developing world.

The disparities between the vaccine haves and have-nots is daunting. Just four nations or regions home to less than half the world’s population have administered 70% of COVID-19 vaccine doses, according to a recent Duke-Margolis report. In contrast, in Namibia — home to more than 2.5 million people — less than half a percent of the population had received a shot by mid-April.

In this nation, even in places like New York that were the epicenter of the crisis, demand for the vaccine is starting to slacken. In the coming months, we are likely to have more doses than we need.

That’s a good problem, but it comes with an obvious solution, one that is both practical and moral. Until herd immunity is reached at home, we still are threatened by flare-ups of COVID-19 elsewhere in the world. Don’t expect to safely travel internationally this summer if the pandemic continues raging in other places. Even more disturbingly, if the virus is allowed to fester in other nations for months or even years, that leaves more time for more deadly or more contagious variants to emerge — potentially even ones our vaccines can’t fully prevent.

The moral argument for sharing vaccines is just as stark. No New Yorker who remembers the sounds of sirens and the pleas of local nurses last spring for protective equipment can ignore what's happening in current hot spots. In India, where the death count increases every few minutes, mass cremations are occurring and shipments of oxygen — sorely needed to keep patients breathing — are getting armed escorts. Vaccines now being promised are not enough.

There are frustrating complications involved in getting vaccines to places like India. But the federal government must try all tools:

  • Share directly from the country’s pipeline of AstraZeneca doses, as the White House promised Monday, once the vaccine clears safety reviews.
  • Support the efforts of and deepen other nations’ commitments to COVAX, the international collaborative, to fairly and equitably vaccinate left-behind nations.
  • Back a temporary suspension of World Trade Organization intellectual property protections, which make it harder for some nations to develop their own vaccines, as an emergency action during the pandemic.
  • Explore other efforts to get vaccines in arms around the world like shifting the timing of potentially unneeded deliveries to the benefit of other countries. And the federal government should immediately send what vaccine-making supplies it can to help other nations’ production.

The pandemic has underscored the interconnected nature of global health. Ending the pandemic in full will take real international cooperation.

— The editorial board