As American vaccine distribution has slowed and supply has outpaced demand domestically, federal representatives are considering using the excess for diplomatic purposes.
Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have said they support the idea. Virginia’s 6th District Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, could not be reached for comment.
China and Russia are providing millions of vaccines to countries in South America, Africa, Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East, which are having difficulty getting vaccines otherwise, according to an April 28 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The report and Warner said China and Russia are leveraging the vaccines to expand their influence in the regions.
Considering distribution of American vaccine doses has only come after reaching the point where uptake of vaccination has slowed, said Kaine outside the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in Weyers Cave on Thursday.
“We needed to be in a place where we felt comfortable about the vaccine deployment in the U.S.,” he said.
Vaccine uptake in the Central Shenandoah Health District is on a downward trend, mirroring uptake across the state and the nation, according to Laura Lee Wight, CSHD spokesperson.
“I think the folks that really wanted a vaccine and wanted it no matter what have had a chance to get the vaccine,” she said Friday.
Wight said 77.5% of residents age 65 and older in the local health district had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while residents between 20 and 40 have the lowest rate of vaccination in the area.
There could be a variety of reasons people are not getting vaccinated from barriers such as transportation to a vaccination clinic or a demanding work schedule, as well as unwillingness due to their good general health and uncertainty, Wight said.
Warner said one such place where extra American vaccines could be distributed is India, which is facing spiking COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. Warner is co-chair of the Senate India Caucus.
Another foreign country excess vaccines could be sent is the Kingdom of Jordan — the stability of which is key to American interests in the region, according to Warner.
Some actions have already been taken, such as a new initiative between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan to jointly invest more money in Indian manufacturing of vaccines, not only for the peninsula country of more than 1.3 billion, but for other countries in southeast Asia, according to Kaine.
“Even if the U.S. is the major contributor, the major donor, I think we gain some advantage if we are linking arms with other democracies,” he said.
The American vaccines are more effective than the Chinese vaccines the communist country is already distributing, Kaine said.
“We are trying to show countries around the world ‘OK, well there is an authoritarian path. But there also a small ‘d’ democratic path, and you know what? The small ‘d’ democratic path is probably more likely to work out for this,” Kaine said.
He also said the joint approach helps stave off a Cold War-style narrative around two powers like the U.S. and China.
In an April 30 phone interview, Warner also spoke about potentially distributing the vaccine through indirect means.
“We want to do some of this vaccine diplomacy, but on the other hand, there’s an international effort called Covax that wants to collect all the vaccines and distribute themselves,” Warner said.
Covax is a group led by international health groups including the World Health Organization, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, according to the WHO website.
Another debate about the vaccines has centered around the patent protections held by the companies, which are making large profits off their developed inoculations.
Kaine said intellectual property rules are very important, but the unprecedented nature of the pandemic calls for an exception in this case to allow for even more production of COVID-19 vaccines by other companies.
“In this emergency instance, I think that will enable us to reach more people and that’s going to be for the health of the U.S.,” he said.
Warner said he has been approached by representatives of the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica for vaccines.
“They’re willing to pay, but they’ve not been able to access” vaccine supply globally, Warner said.
Convincing people hesitant to get vaccinations is still a “focus” for health and federal officials, Kaine said.
“However, we have both a manufacturing capacity and partnerships around the world where we can start to do vaccine diplomacy,” he said.