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Opinion: ‘Vaccine diplomacy’ what the world needs — and what U.S. image needs


As the nation moves closer to normalcy, the Biden administration is smart to use what might be called “vaccine diplomacy” to improve world health, U.S. international relations and America’s image after the discord of the Donald Trump era.

On Thursday, the White House announced plans to distribute at least 80 million COVID-19 vaccinations worldwide by the end of June or about when President Joe Biden hopes to have 70 percent of American adults at least partly vaccinated.

That announcement came after Vice President Kamala Harris told Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that the U.S. would provide 1 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine for Mexico’s use — just the sort of favor America should do for its southern neighbor. It builds on momentum created by the May 24 launch of a partnership between San Diego County, the Mexican Consulate, UC San Diego Health and six U.S.-owned companies to provide vaccines to thousands of workers employed in Baja California at the maquiladoras run by U.S. subsidiary companies.

Yes, this can be seen through the prism of U.S. self-interest, since Mexico anticipates using the 1 million vaccines in border areas and tourist sites frequented by Americans, and since the maquiladoras are such an essential part of the binational regional economy.

But grateful Mexican officials see it through the prism of their nation’s lagging vaccination program. It’s administered 33 million shots in a nation of 126 million, and its COVID-19 deaths are believed to be in the 350,000 range — far higher than the 228,000 test-confirmed deaths — leaving it with one of the highest virus death rates in the world.

Here’s hoping the 1 million Johnson & Johnson doses the U.S. is giving Mexico is just a start. As for the local cross-border vaccine program, authorities have already talked about expanding it to protect more of Baja’s 420,000 maquiladora workers.

The United States should do much more. The need for a U.S.-led campaign to help the rest of the world fight off the pandemic was made starkly clear by the World Health Organization on Thursday. It warned of a third wave of COVID-19 deaths in Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people in which only 31 million have received a vaccination.

This shows the urgency of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s call for vaccine makers to ramp up production to allow the U.S to provide “literally hundreds of millions of doses” to needy countries. Less helpfully, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced last month that the Biden administration supported waiving patent protections for vaccines. As many economists quickly pointed out, if poor nations have to build factories to manufacture vaccines, that provides no short-term relief.

Thankfully, the president is thinking big. “Strong American leadership is essential to ending this pandemic now, and to strengthening global health security for tomorrow,” he said in a statement released on Thursday. “The United States will be the world’s arsenal of vaccines in our shared fight against this virus.”

That is the right message. It may seem cynical to see pandemic aid as anything but a humanitarian action. But the new administration has an opportunity to show that the old America is back — the one that values international cooperation and the one history can record helps out when it is needed most.





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