by John Blaney and Christopher Datta
While the U.S. has made major advances against COVID, it is imperative that much more be done as quickly as possible to end a disease that threatens our health, our economy and our leadership in the world. We need to go on the offense world-wide and become the world’s arsenal for vaccines. Without such an offensive, it is only a matter of time before the virus mutates into a form that is resistant to our current vaccines. As we have seen repeatedly, no matter where it starts, a new variant always finds its way into communities everywhere. Only the United States is uniquely positioned to lead the world out of this crisis.
The first step in developing a strategy to successfully address an emergency as complex as COVID is to properly frame the issue. America’s “Greatest Generation,” led by visionaries like George C. Marshall, knew how to create holistic strategies to overcome global threats. Not only did they defeat the Axis, simultaneously they planned the recovery from World War II and created a new world order. American leadership changed the world. There is much we can still learn from them.
Granted, COVID’s threat is very different from that of the Axis, but may not be any less dangerous. In fact, our death toll from COVID will exceed America’s greatest wartime losses suffered in our Civil War. President Biden correctly calls COVID “a war.” So, where’s the all-out strategy to win this 21st century war? Where is an Operation Overlord, or something similar with that same vision and scope, something that matches how we doggedly tracked down the last smallpox cases in the world, thereby ending completely that terrible disease?
In hospitals around the world the medical profession has fought heroically in the trenches against COVID, while researchers have provided invaluable insights and tools such as masking, social distancing, hygiene guidance, treatments and so forth. But, this is mostly defense. We need a sweeping offense to get out of this disaster, or risk a profound setback if COVID mutates anywhere into something resistant to the vaccines that have been so brilliantly developed in record time.
Tick-tock. If we don’t go all-out after this disease worldwide, assuring America’s safety is impossible. The only way to do that is to wipe COVID out, as we did with smallpox.
America should become the world’s arsenal for vaccines, since we have the best. President Biden announced earlier this year that the United States will eventually share over 1.1 billion doses with other nations. It is a good start, but more is needed.
We should reward handsomely and honor the pharmacy companies and scientists who created these life-saving vaccines, but we should not assume they can successfully counter all future COVID mutations with new formulas. So, the window of opportunity to defeat COVID may be limited.
Actions the U.S. government should take include:
- buy the vaccines’ intellectual property as a matter of national security,
- ask these same companies to lead greatly increased vaccine production everywhere where feasible in the world to manufacture billons of doses,
- create a sequenced, detailed and supported distribution/eradication plan with as rapid a timeline as possible (working with COVAX, the World Health Organization, and all nations, friend or foe), thereby spinning an international immunity web to fight, reduce and eventually track down and exterminate COVID,
- make the vaccine free for any who cannot pay,
- work strategically to provide, create or mass produce everything else needed to get the job done,
- create thousands of away teams to inoculate people.
Greater vaccine immunity world-wide should allow for testing and contact tracing to be much more effective in the effort to isolate and quarantine those infected, further limiting the spread and mutation of the virus.
We did D-Day, and we went to the moon. We can do this.
The diplomatic challenge to get the global cooperation required, especially from countries hostile to other American interests, such as North Korea and others who deny they even have a COVID problem, would be real. As we have seen with polio, vaccine resistance based on fear and disinformation can also be a problem. We believe most countries, however, could be persuaded to cooperate and assist since their own people would pressure their governments to do so. Any who refused could be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, to include severe restrictions on travel into and out of nations refusing participation. Some countries, like Russia or China, would likely want to stick to their own vaccines, even if less effective. But, we jointly face a formidable enemy, so workarounds should be possible.
Too expensive? No, it’s too risky not to do it. Many countries simply do not have the capabilities to counter COVID. Without a truly global offensive, their populations will remain COVID incubators. We already have seen how new COVID variants end up in the United States, given modern global transportation. The economic damage of an inadequate global strategy will be devastating.
In sum, there really is no good alternative to a much stronger global offensive against COVID. Let’s end this war, not endure it. Attack!
John Blaney is former ambassador to Liberia and the recipient of the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, the nation’s highest diplomatic honor.
Christopher Datta is a retired Foreign Service Officer and the author of a memoir, Guardians of the Grail: A Life of Diplomacy on the Edge. He has a new book, Run Scout Run, about the Foreign Service dog he brought back from South Sudan.