To help vaccinate the world, Biden needs to step outside of his political tribe
Making U.S. vaccines available to all nations as fast as possible will require leadership that defies both progressive and conservative preferences.
In multi-party democracies problems don’t get solved and things don’t get done unless one of the major political tribes fights for it. Right now, the United States and the European Union can choose to actively help other nations quickly vaccinate their people against Covid-19. But it looks like they are going to sit on the sidelines making symbolic gestures to look good and ease consciences because none of major political tribes on either side of the Atlantic can think clearly about what needs to be done.
The stakes could not be higher. The world is on course for millions of people to die of Covid unnecessarily in 2021 because of vaccine shortages. On top of that, so many people contracting Covid-19 could produce new variants that evade vaccines. Experts warn that our failure to quickly kill off Covid-19 will add Covid to the list of globally endemic diseases like an extremely deadly flu. Without being overly cynical, it’s not hard to imagine pharmaceutical executives looking forward to never-ending demand for patentable annual vaccine updates, just like we have for the flu. Maybe that has something to do with why, after a good start vaccinating the United States and parts of Europe, they’re in no rush to vaccinate the rest of the world. Don’t blame them. Their job is to make profits. Government is the responsible party here. Its job is to protect us.
It may have looked like the U.S. government was taking a step toward protecting us when the Biden administration said last week that it supported waiving intellectual property rights for vaccines. We should cheer the U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai in particular for making that happen. It is an important move. But it will be remembered as a cynical PR stunt that helped no one if the Biden administration and E.U. leaders don’t take the additional steps needed to get vaccines into the arms of billions. The Biden administration made its statement on IP knowing that Europe would block any real action at the WTO. They also know that to vaccinate the world, waiving patents is not enough. New manufacturers need help from the old manufacturers to get up and running and shortages of supplies that delayed the first billion doses need to be cleared away for manufacturers to make the next seven billion.
The necessary actions are easy and inexpensive, but they probably won’t happen for one simple reason: they don’t fall neatly into any of the policy categories that any of the major political tribes in the U.S. or E.U. get excited about.
Conservative and other business-oriented political tribes get excited about policies that let corporations do whatever they wish to pursue profits in the so called free market. Progressive and other socially-oriented political tribes get excited about policies that restrict and regulate corporations. Neither gets excited about the idea of society working collaboratively with corporations to get something done with the promise of both public and private rewards for success.
Conservatives don’t like the idea of society making a meaningful contribution to the work that corporations do. They don’t believe it’s possible, because government is inherently incompetent. But they don’t want it to happen even if it could because they believe collective action is a corrosive force against civilization.
Progressives don’t like the idea of rewarding corporations as partners. Ironically, like their conservative cousins they tend to view corporations as omnipotent organizations that could not possibly do a better job with leadership from society. In a crisis, they’re not worried about corporations failing, they’re worried about them succeeding too much. In the run up to World War II, American progressives and leftists worried primarily about corporations making too much money. They did not worry about corporations failing to make enough weapons and vehicles to win the war.
World War II is an important example to learn from. The record shows that America’s industrial corporations—by far the largest in the world at the time—were unable to complete the required jobs without active and material assistance from society. Corporations needed the government to invent whole new industries to clear away shortages, such as the synthetic rubber industry. They needed the government to build factories because their business models didn’t support investing in temporary extra capacity to deal with a national emergency. (Of course, in the end, demand for that capacity wasn’t temporary or extra.) Corporations also needed government to facilitate technology transfer between companies and industries.
Examples of all of those dynamics can be seen in the case of mass aircraft production—something that had never been achieved before anywhere in the world. Auto industry leaders hired by Roosevelt cleared away supply chain issues, built factories and leased them to automakers, marched an army of draftsmen from Ford and GM to aircraft factories to make hundreds of thousands of blueprints required by mass manufacturing, and facilitated technology transfer in a thousand other ways. The government gave auto makers and aircraft makers up-front “training contracts” to make it worth their while to work together.
That kind of leadership through government-corporate collaboration does not magically spring up in every crisis. It was not seen in World War I. Roosevelt’s neither-left-nor-right pragmatism made it possible. Leadership in government in emergency positions by industrialists like Bill Knudsen made it probable.
The task of vaccinating the world is so much simpler and smaller than the industrial mobilization around World War II. Furthermore, instead of working at cross purposes, the economies of the world will be working all toward the same goal. China and Russia are far behind the U.S. and Europe in vaccine technology and production capacity. But they are showing how easy it can be to help countries that need vaccines to make their own.
Among many examples of the benefit of Russia’s open-source approach to distributing its Sputnik vaccine, one pharmaceutical company in India is ramping up to produce 50 million doses per month. The company needed more than access to the Sputnik recipe. It needed technical support, or “technology transfer” from Russian experts. The Russian government is paying a handful of technicians to support production of Sputnik around the world, which seem to be all that’s needed.
Imagine how this might work in practice in the U.S.: Biden would have to get on TV, probably repeatedly, to explain why Americans will only be safe once the whole world is vaccinated. He’d then have to explain that the U.S. government fronted most of the capital and took on all the risk for the production of the most powerful vaccines such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Moderna’s. Then he could explain that using emergency measures, his government will be paying the vaccine companies generously to share their recipes and technical know-how with any company in the world willing and able to produce the vaccines. At the same time, he’d explain, contracts would be given out to companies anywhere in the world who could alleviate supply shortages that are interfering with vaccine production. Where necessary, the Army Corps of Engineers and other military and government organizations would be tapped to alleviate shortages by redirecting existing supplies away from other uses or to manufacture them if no private company is available to do so.
If President Biden showed that kind of leadership both progressives and conservatives would be confused. Neither political tribe would recognize those plans as part of the normal progressive playbook—or conservative playbook.
Biden says he wants to unite the country. Maybe showing a new kind of leadership that falls outside of any of the current major political tribes would begin to do that—especially if it winds up saving the world.