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Opinion: The US needs a Marshall Plan for global vaccinations

Jake AuchinclossJake Auchincloss
After two months in office, Biden has already done a superb job of bringing our country back. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan will jump-start our economic recovery and pave the way for schools to reopen, while enabling state and local officials to invest in infrastructure. And the vaccine rollout has ramped up, with experts projecting the United States could reach herd immunity this summer.
The US may be winning the race between vaccinations and variants — but the world is losing it. As the US recovery effort picks up steam, we have an opportunity to save lives while rebuilding our moral standing in the world post-Trump. To turbocharge the President’s Build Back Better agenda at home and christen a new era of US foreign policy, we need to lead a global vaccination initiative to help the world beat back the pandemic, much like the Marshall Plan aided in Europe’s recovery after World War II.
So far, only about six doses have been administered per 100 people worldwide and many countries will not reach herd immunity until 2023, if at all. That timeline doesn’t even take into account the possibility that emerging variants could evade the vaccines. The longer it takes to achieve global herd immunity, the more likely it is that Covid-19 will become endemic.
To vaccinate the world faster, the US government needs to provide more funding for COVAX, the global vaccination effort led by the World Health Organization along with UNICEF and other organizations. The United States should also increase direct investments in vaccine manufacturing through public-private partnerships, which would create jobs, leverage vaccine diplomacy and support the biomanufacturing industry, possibly leading to cures for other illnesses as well.
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But the chief bottleneck in vaccine production is not money but manufacturing capacity. The private sector has already increased its production by multiples, but it’s still not enough to meet the global demand. Vaccines are, in the lexicon of economics, a public good. The market, left alone, is undersupplying a product that benefits the public at large. The federal government needs to support production more expansively, which will require contracts with pioneering biomanufacturers like National Resilience and a review of how to streamline the entirety of the supply chain, from vials to special syringes.
Investing in biomanufacturing — the production of biological products made from living cells — could benefit the US economy and cement our position as a leader in medical innovation. Biomanufacturers are capable of producing an array of pharmaceutical products, from vaccines to cell or gene therapies that could one day treat cancer or Alzheimer’s. Given that my state of Massachusetts is already the top biopharma hub in the country, federal funding would help it to expand — from research and development to manufacturing — to become a global center for industrial biology.
Finally, controlling more vaccine production will give the United States greater leverage in vaccine diplomacy. Countries like Russia and China are already offering other countries access to vaccines in an attempt to further their interests. We should not let them set the norms or stakes for these negotiations. In Brazil, for example, China is using vaccine shipments to press for 5G access for the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The United States should be countering such strong-arming by providing its own vaccine supplies. Instead of extracting concessions, however, we can be building partnerships in public health, from the logistics of vaccine distribution to the training of medical workers.
As a student of history and the great-grandson of Harvey Bundy, one of the architects of the Marshall Plan, I don’t propose this undertaking lightly. The world needs America to lead. The fight against Covid-19 is a transnational challenge that calls for vision and boldness. In the past, Americans have brought forth their best in times of crisis. After Trump abased our country on the world stage for four years, the United States can reclaim moral leadership through a Marshall Plan for vaccines.
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