[OPINION] On US vaccine diplomacy

Here’s some good news. Finally, the United States will be able to share its vaccines with the rest of the world – up to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca – in the coming weeks. This is like stumbling into a waterfall in a desert.

The scheduled arrival of AstraZeneca to the Philippines, both from COVAX and those ordered by the private sector and local government units (LGUs) from the Serum Institute of India, has been delayed as India is currently battling a catastrophic wave of COVID-19. It had to halt its exports to provide vaccines to its own people.

Here, we’re trying hard to ride out a second surge, with total cases already breaching the 1-million mark. The speed at which we accumulated the last 250,000 cases was fierce; it took only less than a month.

Thus, this announcement from the US gives us a flicker of hope. Earlier, the US loaned millions of doses of AstraZeneca to its neighbors Mexico and Canada.

However, details of this global sharing program have not yet been unveiled. Who will be on the list of recipients? India, most definitely, will be a priority. I expect the Philippines to be one of the recipients, for strategic reasons.

‘We hear you’

What we know is that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has designated a coordinator for global COVID-19 response and health security: Gayle Smith. She was the administrator of USAID for President Obama, and served on the National Security Council for both President Obama and President Clinton. In effect, Smith will run the US' vaccine diplomacy program, far outpaced by China.

We in the Philippines are living with this: China has donated a million doses of Sinovac – I like to call it our vaccine of no choice – apart from selling us millions more.

What would be the shape of the US' belated vaccine diplomacy? These excerpts from Blinken’s April 5 remarks on COVID-19 response will give us an insight on what will be guiding the US.

“I know that many countries are asking for the United States to do more, some with growing desperation because of the scope and scale of their COVID emergencies. We hear you. And I promise, we’re moving as fast as possible.

We’ll be guided every step by core values.

We won’t trade shots in arms for political favors. This is about saving lives.

We’ll treat our partner countries with respect; we won’t overpromise and underdeliver.

We’ll maintain high standards for the vaccines that we help to bring to others, only distributing those proven to be safe and effective.

We’ll insist on an approach built on equity. COVID has already come down hard on vulnerable and marginalized people. We cannot allow our COVID response to end up making racial and gender inequality worse.

We’ll embrace partnership, sharing the burden and combining strengths. The collaboration we formed a few weeks ago with the Quad countries – India, Japan, Australia – is a good example. Together, we’re increasing the world’s manufacturing capacity so we can get more shots out the door and into people’s arms as fast as possible.”

What took the US so long?

As we know, it had to fight its own devastating COVID-19 war amid a backdrop of violent and polarizing politics. Fortunately, under President Biden, vaccination is a race they are winning.

With about 40% of its population having received at least one dose and with an assured supply of Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, the world’s biggest economy is now ready to help others. As Blinken said, by the end of May, the US will have enough vaccine supply for all adults in America.

Moreover, the AstraZeneca supply in the US, manufactured in Baltimore, has not yet been approved for emergency use there. They wouldn’t have any need for it.

As for the orders for Moderna placed by the private sector (7 million doses) and the government (13 million doses), Philippine Ambassador to Washington Babe Romualdez and Filipino-Americans have been lobbying for their early release.

Some doses are expected to arrive in late May or June. But the bulk is scheduled to reach us in the third and fourth quarter of this year.

Whew! All this anticipation and waiting is like a sport, with its highs and lows. Then there’s the issue of ramping up vaccination to meet the goal of reaching herd immunity by the end of this year. But that’s another story. – Rappler.com

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most seasoned journalists. For close to a decade, Vitug—a Nieman fellow—edited Newsbreak magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court,” which exposed critical weakne...