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America helps itself by vaccinating the world

3 minute read

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the state of vaccinations as Vice President Kamala Harris listens during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response event in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 18, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

NEW YORK, June 10 (Reuters Breakingviews) - True win-win propositions are rare. America paying to vaccinate the world against the coronavirus is one of them. Joe Biden’s plan to buy and donate 500 million doses of Pfizer’s jab to poor and middle-income countries is a cheap way to spread goodwill. It’s also in the nation’s economic self-interest. Going further and finishing the job could cost under $40 billion.

Rich nations have bought over half of the 11.3 billion total doses purchased as of the end of May, according to Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center. These countries represent only around 16% of the world’s population, per Wellcome Trust data. Yet the risk to everyone from new, more dangerous variants is higher while most of the world is unvaccinated, and it's also to global trade, the travel industry and such.

Countries like the United States ordered more vaccines than they needed. Some require one shot while others need two. Assume the average person gets 1.5 shots, and the world’s 7.7 billion people, as calculated by the United Nations, would require about 11.5 billion jabs, roughly the total already ordered.

If rich nations want to keep spare doses, then the U.S. could just vaccinate everyone else. The approximately 6.5 billion people in less wealthy countries need probably fewer than 10 billion doses. These economies already have 5.4 billion on order, according to the Duke experts, leaving a gap of about 4 billion.

Pfizer (PFE.N) Chief Executive Albert Bourla said in May it would charge middle-income countries half the roughly $20 per shot paid by rich countries. Poor countries would pay even less. That means bridging the global vaccine shortfall would potentially cost Biden under $40 billion.

Putting that in context, U.S. exports are running about $9 billion less a month than pre-pandemic levels, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. A recovered world could generate over $100 billion more each year in exports than at present. Looked at another way, vaccinating the world would cost less than a fifth of the $250 billion outlays in a recently passed bill to help the United States compete with China, and a mere 2% of Biden's original $2 trillion-plus infrastructure target.

Add the obvious benefit to Washington's battered soft power, and it's a no brainer – a bit like getting vaccinated against Covid-19 in the first place.

Follow @rob_cyran on Twitter


- The United States plans to buy and donate 500 million doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine to over 90 middle- and low-income countries, according to the White House on June 10. This is in addition to 80 million doses President Joe Biden's administration has already pledged. The new jabs will be part of a total U.S. commitment of $4 billion to the COVAX program that is co-led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization and the World Health Organization.

- Pfizer will produce the vaccines at plants in the United States and deliver 200 million doses this year and 300 million in 2022. The vaccines will be provided at a not-for-profit price. The Biden administration is also in talks to buy vaccines from Moderna, according to CNBC on June 9.

(This item has been corrected in the sixth paragraph to say $250 billion instead of $250 million.)

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