Editor’s Note: Thomas Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” (Oxford University Press). He tweets @tbalcerski. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that the United States will donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine worldwide, dramatically building on a previous commitment to share 80 million vaccines. “This is about our responsibility, our humanitarian obligation, to save as many lives as we can,” Biden said. The statement comes on the heels of a concerted vaccination push in the US, and now more than 50% of the US population has already gotten at least one shot.
The latest announcement also strengthens Biden’s pledge to make America “the arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world.” The phrase harkens back to former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vow to be “the great arsenal of democracy” in his famous 1940 speech. Congress went on to pass the Lend Lease Act of 1941 that provided direct material support to the United Kingdom in the form of tanks, airplanes and ammunitions during World War II.
Following the war, in which the United States played a decisive part in the Allied military victory, this spirit of international cooperation continued with the creation of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The US also funded the Marshall Plan that helped to rebuild Western Europe after WWII.
Following in this same tradition, Biden is now committed to eradicating Covid-19 across the globe. While the President’s intentions may be Rooseveltian, the United States has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to global health crises. From the tragic rollout of the polio vaccine in the 1950s to its denial of the scourge of AIDS to its disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the US has not always prioritized the health of its own citizens, to say nothing of the rest of the world.
To end the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States must act swiftly and look beyond its own borders – as it has done before – to play a leading role in the international effort to vaccinate the world. In the process, Americans can both improve the health of millions of people around the globe and resume its position as a leader on the world stage.
The history of the polio vaccine offers a useful historical parallel and a cautionary tale of government inaction. In April 1955, Americans learned that Dr. Jonas Salk had successfully created a vaccine against the dreaded poliovirus that caused lifelong paralysis of one’s legs. “I have no words to thank you,” President Dwight Eisenhower said to Salk during an emotional address in the Rose Garden.
But the federal government failed to take an active role in overseeing the development and distribution of Salk’s vaccine, with disastrous results. Salk’s research relied on donations to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which partnered with private drug companies to produce the vaccine. But a defective batch of vaccines caused several deaths, paralyzed hundreds more and undermined confidence in the vaccine. In response, Eisenhower endorsed a plan to involve the federal government and in August 1955, he signed the Polio Vaccine Assistance Act into law that funded vaccination efforts.
Dr. Albert Sabin went on to develop a more effective one-dose vaccine, which was tested among 30 people at a federal prison in Ohio. In 1959, the Soviet Union conducted a largescale trial with Sabin’s vaccine, leading to widespread inoculation across that country. Cold War tensions raised suspicion about the Sabin vaccine, but in 1961, the American Medical Association finally recommended its use over the Salk vaccine. The vaccine subsequently went on to be widely deployed across the world during the 1960s and 1970s.
By contrast, the government’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic reveals negligence of a different kind. In 1981, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported the first cases of what later become known as AIDS. The epidemic initially affected LGBTQ+ communities, leading some to label it the “gay plague.” Over time, as the virus spread, it disproportionately affected communities of color in the United States and impoverished people around the world, especially in Africa.
Yet President Ronald Reagan was painfully slow to recognize the AIDS epidemic as a pressing issue. Despite pressure from the public, Reagan did not even publicly mention AIDS in an official address until 1985. In 1987, Congress banned the use of federal funds for AIDS programs that “promoted” or “encouraged” homosexuality, which hampered efforts to promote safe sex.
Only after the reality of the virus’s impact at home had been acknowledged and confronted could the real work begin of combatting it abroad. In 2003, then-President George W. Bush unveiled the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to address the AIDS epidemic across the globe, especially in hard-hit African countries. Shortly after, Congress passed the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 (the Global AIDS Act).
With more than $85 billion invested in the global HIV/AIDS response, PEPFAR has saved 20 million lives, according to a State Department press release in December 2020. Despite this, however, critics have blasted PEPFAR for imposing conservative values like abstinence-until-marriage programs.
Four decades into the fight against HIV/AIDS, the virus persists in both the United States and around the globe. Since the first cases emerged, more than 700,000 Americans have lost their lives and the global death toll stands around 34.7 million. Just last week, President Biden acknowledged the staggering loss in a speech commemorating the 40th year of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
When it comes to Covid-19, will the United States, along with other financially well-off countries around the world, step up to the challenge of ending the pandemic around the world? In a recent op-ed, President Biden argued that alliance-building and cooperation with international agencies, such as the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access pool (COVAX), and governments across the globe lay at the heart of ending the pandemic.
The efforts so far have been promising, even as the pandemic still rages in places like India and Brazil. To date, the US has promised up to $4 billion toward the effort, while a number of countries and private companies have added another $2.4 billion more. In another major donation, the Mastercard Foundation pledged $1.3 billion for vaccines in Africa.
Beyond the many benefits of ending Covid-19 pandemic, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the geopolitical landscape around the globe. With the upcoming G7 meeting in the UK, Biden will be looking to reinforce the necessary alliances to combat Covid-19 and simultaneously assume a position of leadership in global affairs. If he is successful, a new Covid-19 Marshall Plan that simultaneously saves lives and stimulates the global economy may be on the horizon. At stake may also be America’s role as a world leader.