Op-Ed: U.S. COVID Policy Doesn’t Have to Leave the World Behind

Coronavirus vaccine concept, syringe of vaccine and needle planting on USA United States map on green sickness planet earth with red Coronavirus COVID-19 pathogen around

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Meghan Fitzgerald, RN, MPH, DrPH, is an adjunct associate professor with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a private equity investor. She has decades of experience working in the healthcare field, ranging from frontline patient care to advising prominent healthcare firms. Here, she shares why it’s a mistake to remove aid for other countries from the U.S. COVID relief budget.

The Senate has struck a deal to allocate $10 billion for COVID funding, a far cry from Biden’s requested $22.5 billion.

The relief package, which has not yet cleared Congress, will go towards replenishing testing, treatments, and vaccines. Missing from the budget: aid to poorer countries still digging out from underneath the pandemic.

But the U.S. doesn’t get out of the pandemic if the world doesn’t.

Right now, many parts of the world are where the U.S. was a year ago: scrambling to supply adequate testing, vaccines, clinics, and staff to keep rising COVID-19 case rates at bay.

U.S. policy needs to help other countries finish the job at hand.

As we debate the merits of a second booster shot in the U.S. and allocate funding for preventive medicines, fewer than 15% of people in low-income countries have received one dose.

We are not dealing with a neglected local disease, but rather a highly transmissible global virus that has proven time and again its ability to mutate, spread, and wreak socioeconomic havoc. Yet the world is way off pace when it comes to hitting the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of vaccinating 70% of people in all countries by July 2022.

The WHO has received $1.8 billion of the $16.8 billion needed to support global COVID-19 vaccine uptake, which is why a multi-billion dollar slash to the U.S. COVID relief plan matters so much. To be sure, it’s a tough time to ask for funding, with domestic challenges like inflation and uninsured citizens competing for attention and dollars. Opponents propose new funding must come from the $1.9 trillion allocation approved by Congress last year.

COVID-19 could care less about budget shortfalls. Without U.S. help, it will infect the vulnerable across all borders.

What Would U.S. Funding Provide?

So far, the U.S. has donated 500 million vaccines globally. According to an April 7 White House statement, without more funding, “the Administration would be unable to extend Global VAX surge support to 20+ additional under-vaccinated countries that will need intensive support this year to get shots in arms.”

In other words, it’s not only about supplying vaccines. It’s about supporting the logistics, clinics, staff, and awareness campaigns to get people to take them, too.

Without U.S. funding, life-saving supplies, tests, medicines, oxygen, and aid are also off the table for other countries.

This has repercussions. If large swaths of people are unvaccinated, deadly new variants will breed.

Which Resources Do Vulnerable Countries Need Most?

The world needs workers, including a flexible healthcare workforce. The WHO predicts a projected shortfall of 18 million health workers by 2030, exacerbated by pandemic-related burnout. 

Revamped logistics are important, too, especially in underserved populations where cold storage for vaccines is limited. Extensive reporting on unused vaccines point towards a need to reevaluate the pharmaceutical supply chain, from packaging to container transport.

Who Is Stepping Up?

Resource shortfalls are a constant for those on the front line, but many organizations continue to deftly navigate public and private sector funding while mitigating financial risk. One example is Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which works with a combination of governments, global organizations like the WHO, researchers, and philanthropists to boost immunization rates around the world.

Recently, Gavi partnered with MedAccess, which finances healthcare products, to deliver over 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to lower-income countries.

Additionally, the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) has provided billions of dollars to many low-income countries to fund hospitals, address food security, and to facilitate virtual learning for kids affected by the pandemic.

These models should be celebrated and emulated. But without U.S. funding, the world will desperately lean on these types of resources—and it’s not sustainable.

The U.S. has finally entered a more optimistic period of the pandemic, but must lean in to help neighbors avoid the tough lessons we learned the hard way. If our highly politicized budget bureaucracy can’t find common ground, then we must pivot targeted efforts to help other global partners, like Gavi or the World Bank, be successful.

Our collective resources, talent, and leadership are needed today to help bring all to secure tomorrow.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Meg Fitzgerald
Meghan Fitzgerald, RN, MPH, DrPH, is an adjunct associate professor with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a private equity investor.