As COVID surges abroad, should the U.S. do more to help?

Health workers care for patients
Health workers care for patients inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a COVID-19 ward in New Delhi on May 1.
Prakash Singh | AFP via Getty Images file

As COVID-19 sweeps the world, some health experts say wealthy countries like the United States should do more to help countries like India that are facing deadly surges.

Virus hot spots threaten the entire planet, even those in the wealthiest countries, where vaccinations are readily available, Tom Bollyky, told host Kerri Miller. Bollyky is director of the global health program and a senior fellow for global health, economics and development at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

The U.S. and other countries with vaccine surplus should be doing more, such as by sending vaccine supplies or waiving vaccine patents to benefit countries most in need, he said.

“It is in every nation’s interest that we get this pandemic under control. That’s particularly true with the emergence of new, dangerous variants,” Bollyky said.

Variants threaten to put herd immunity out of reach for the U.S., he said, because an estimated 25 to 30 percent of adults are unlikely to get vaccinated due to hesitancy. With the pandemic raging globally, and with the U.S.'s historically low vaccination rates among adults, Bollyky says, "there's no fortress that's going to protect us."

He added that one of the best ways to address the global pandemic is through donations and increased global manufacturing. While countries like the U.S. and the U.K. expect to reach a 70 percent vaccination rate by July, the production of the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t going to slow, adding that those vaccines should go to where they’re needed most. 

“Even if we expand the [eligibility] to 12- and 15-year-olds, there’s only 10 million of those in the United States. We will be producing more vaccine than that,” he said.

The second wave of the virus has already overwhelmed India’s health systems. Hospitals lack resources to help the critically ill, leaving families to hunt for much-needed oxygen for their loved ones.

India has topped more than 20 million cases and reported over 380,000 new cases Tuesday. Some worry the country hasn’t seen the worst of it, suggesting India wouldn’t hit its peak until at least June.

“I’ve worked on access to medicines now for almost 18 years. I have almost never been in a position where I’m the person that I’m fighting for, or my loved ones or my family,” Achal Prabhala, coordinator for the AccessIBSA project at the Shuttleworth Foundation, told Miller.

But India is far from alone in reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and its vaccine shortage. Many of the world’s developing countries do not have access to the vaccines they need to put an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bollyky said three of every four vaccine doses have gone to people living in just nine countries globally. ”The iniquity is quite stark,” he said.

As for India, the death toll continues to climb with an average of 3,500 deaths reported over the last seven days. 

“One of my favorite people in the world, an owner of a bookshop who used to let me read books for free when I was a child, and who I went to probably every single day of my life for about 25 years, died today of COVID and he was only in his 70s,” Prabhala said. “It was absolutely heartbreaking. I have a cousin who died a couple of months ago who was 34 and asthmatic. It was still a shock. It is quite unbelievable. It’s really like being in the middle of a very, very sad movie, which I have no control over whatsoever.”

Guests: 

  • Achal Prabhala is a health activist and coordinator for the AccessIBSA project that campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa at the Shuttleworth Foundation.

  • Thomas J. Bollyky is director of the global health program and a senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations.

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above.

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