On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that it would not take part in an international effort to test, produce, and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, despite the obvious benefit that would serve to public health in the United States and the clear electoral benefit it would provide for a president desperate to project a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy.
As is the case for so many current presidential decisions, the choice to opt out of the high-profile vaccine search appears to be driven by personal grievance. Trump will not allocate U.S. resources toward the effort because of the involvement of the World Health Organization — the flawed United Nations organ he has used as a scapegoat to deflect attention from his own failures to respond to the coronavirus.
“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said on Tuesday. “But we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.” Thus, the United States will not be involved with the COVID-19 vaccine global-access (COVAX) research facility, which will have over 170 countries collaborating to develop a vaccine and distribute doses to high-risk groups worldwide.
The downside for the United States is immediately apparent: If the international effort proves an early success and the U.S. version does not, the country will face a gap time in which Americans will die as more collaborative parties reap the benefits of cooperation. (One could only imagine how such an outcome would affect the Trump administration or its legacy, depending on how the next 62 days go.) But the American decision to bail will also impact the COVAX drive. “The idea behind COVAX is to discourage hoarding and focus on vaccinating high-risk people in every country first,” writes the Washington Post. Without the aid of the world’s largest economy, it’s possible that more defectors will emerge, with the vaccine push being turned into a race with real winners and losers.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the president has accused the WHO of taking a deferential approach to China. But such a charge may be a simple projection, as he also thanked President Xi Jinping in January for keeping the virus “under control.” In an interview with New York in April, Jeremy Konyndyk, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, called Trump’s treatment of the WHO a clear grasp “for anything it can to distract from its own poor performance. If they can blame this on WHO, or if they can blame this on a lab accident in China, that somehow alleviates them of their responsibility. That is very clearly the play.”
Aside from the unhelpful rhetoric and the potentially disastrous funding cuts, the Trump administration has long acted against its own interests in regard to the agency. In February, a test developed by the WHO and administered successfully in over 60 countries was forgone by the White House. Instead, Trump approved a a botched testing rollout designed by Jared Kushner in one of the great shortcomings of the early American response.