WASHINGTON: The United States has said it will not join a global effort led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine to cure coronavirus.
Over 170 countries are in talks to take part in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) Facility, aimed at fasttracking vaccine development, secure doses for all nations and distributing them to the most high-risk segment of each population, The Washington Post reported.
The initiative, co-led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, was of interest to some members of the Donald Trump administration and is supported by US allies including Japan, Germany and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.
However, the US will not participate as Trump pulled out his country from the WHO in July after he criticised the body for covering up the outbreak of COVID-19, which first emerged in China last year.
"The US will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organisations influenced by the corrupt WHO and China," White House spokesperson Judd Deere was quoted as saying.
The decision to back out from the initiative highlights the fact that the administration bets it could win the vaccine race. But it, however, eliminates the chance to get more doses from a pool of vaccine candidates, which is a potentially risky approach.
"America is taking a huge gamble by taking a go-it-alone strategy," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.
Kendall Hoyt, an assistant professor at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, said the decision was like opting out of an insurance policy.
"The US could be pursuing bilateral deals with drug companies and simultaneously participating in Covax. Just from a simple risk-management perspective, this (Covax decision) is shortsighted," Hoyt said.
Experts said the plan behind Covax is to prevent hoarding and focus on vaccinating high-risk people in every country -- a plan which could improve health outcomes and lower costs. However, the US move to back out from Covax makes that harder.
"When the US says it is not going to participate in any sort of multilateral effort to secure vaccines, it is a real blow," said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
"The behaviour of countries when it comes to vaccines in this pandemic will have political repercussions beyond public health. It's about: Are you a reliable partner, or, at the end of the day, are you going to keep all your toys for yourself?" she was quoted as saying.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun had an interest in exploring some type of role in Covax. However, there was opposition within the administration and a belief the US has enough COVID-19 vaccine candidates that it can go it alone.
However, an unlikely worst-case scenario could surface is that none of the US vaccine candidates are viable, leaving Washington with no option as it has not joined Covax, according to experts.
Another possibility is that if a US vaccine does pan out, but the country hoards doses and vaccinates hundreds of thousands of Americans, including those at low risk, while leaving other countries without, The Washington Post reported.
According to health security experts, there are two problems with that strategy. A new vaccine is unlikely to offer complete protection to all people, which means that a portion of the American population would be still vulnerable to imported cases even as the economy reopens.
The second issue is that a US recovery is dependent on global economic recovery. If several parts of the world are still shut down and supply chains are disrupted, America will not be able to recover.
"We will continue to suffer the economic consequences -- lost US jobs -- if the pandemic rages unabated in allies and trading partners," said Thomas J Bollyky, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the director of its global health programme.
Those who back a multilateral approach to global public health would want to see all countries participating in Covax initiative. But WHO officials have said that countries need not choose as they can adopt strategies by signing bilateral agreements and also joining Covax.
"By joining the facility at the same time that you do bilateral deals, you are actually betting on a larger number of vaccine candidates," Mariangela Simao, a WHO assistant director-general for drug and vaccine access, was quoted by The Washington Post, as saying at a briefing last month.
While the US has long been the biggest contributor to the WHO and a major funder of vaccine initiatives, it, however, could pledge surplus doses of vaccine to Covax to ensure that they are equitably distributed.