Are we our brother’s keeper?

When it comes to distributing Covid-19 vaccines globally, the Biden administration believes we are (to an extent). On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would ship an initial 60 million doses of vaccines abroad within the next two months. The move is seen as a way to reassure countries clamoring for U.S. aid.

But with less than 44 percent of the U.S. population – or 144 million citizens – with at least one shot (and with an estimated 5 million Americans keeping it that way), does sending vaccines overseas make sense? Moreover, President Biden announced Tuesday that he wants 70 percent of American adults vaccinated by the Fourth of July.

The benefit of a more vaccinated global society is that it allays the concern of SARS-Cov-2 variants forming in different parts of the world. There’s a reason the Brazilian, U.K., and South African strains incorporate their geography with their nomenclature – it’s because that’s where they were discovered. Even in the U.S., researchers at Texas A&M found a new homegrown Texan strain – named the “BV-1 variant” for its Brazos Valley origin. “BV-1” is related but different from the U.K. strain (with slight differences in its glycoprotein outer coat). It’s easy to imagine similar variants arising in different parts of the world potentially immune to the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. But that hypothetical remains to be seen.

Another benefit to the Biden policy is that the U.S. is sending the vaccines we’re not using – namely, the AstraZeneca vaccine that is not approved for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA. Providing the AstraZeneca vaccine to countries in need offers a low-risk and high-reward proposition for the United States. However, whether it is equitable to give vaccines “not up to American FDA standards” to other countries is a fair debate.

Yet, something is better than nothing. This is especially true for countries like Libya, where 0.01 percent of the country is vaccinated. Or in India, where the virus is running rampant, with less than 9 percent of the population vaccinated.

As of April 30, 2021, 43 percent of America's adult population received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Globally, the United States trailed Israel, the U.A.E., and the U.K. in the same metric. Many experts believe that herd immunity can be achieved with 70 percent of the population vaccinated – a threshold in reach for a select number of developed countries but far less so for others.

In so long as the AstraZeneca vaccine does not rise to the standard of the FDA’s EUA approval like the other three vaccines (i.e., a high standard compared to the rest of the world), then it should be continued to be used for overseas distribution. But until the nation comes close to the 70 percent threshold Biden set for American adults, all FDA-approved vaccines need to stay onshore. Vaccine hesitancy already runs high among rural Americans and Black adults. Not being able to provide shots to those who want it – or change their mind to get it – should never occur in a resource-rich country like America. The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt those Americans at or below the median income level while higher earners transitioned to remote work more easily. The U.S. needs to bring the country back to normal before considering sending vital Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines overseas.

You can read more about FREOPP’s work on measuring COVID-19 policy responses around the world on Freopp.org.