Nicholas Kristof: Vaccinating the world would be the best investment ever

(Emile Ducke | The New York Times) Vials of the Sputnik V vaccine on a production line in St. Petersburg, Russia, Feb. 17, 2021. "American vaccine nationalism means that we are hoarding both vaccines and the raw materials to make them, in ways that lead to unnecessary deaths abroad and also undermine our own recovery," The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes.

Let’s begin with a quick quiz question: What’s the highest-return investment you can think of? Private equity? A hedge fund?

Here’s something with a far higher return: a global campaign to vaccinate people in poor countries against the coronavirus.

So far the United States and other Group of 7 “leading” countries haven’t actually shown leadership in fighting the pandemic globally. American vaccine nationalism means that we are hoarding both vaccines and the raw materials to make them, in ways that lead to unnecessary deaths abroad and also undermine our own recovery.

“It’s a huge moral failure of the G-7,” said Esther Duflo, an MIT economist and Nobel laureate in economics. “We’re so focused on our own problems that we can’t see beyond.”

Abhijit Banerjee, her husband and fellow Nobel laureate in economics at MIT, added that because of the risks of variants emerging from poor countries, “It’s not only a huge failure, but I think it’s going to come back to haunt us.”

This is not, of course, primarily about money. It’s about lives. It’s about the trajectory of humanity. But for those who weigh costs to orient their moral compass, a new paper from the International Monetary Fund offers numbers that underscore the importance of investing in global vaccines.

The IMF calculates that an urgent $50 billion investment — now! — primarily by rich countries to vaccinate people in poor countries would yield an astonishing $9 trillion in additional economic growth by 2025, by controlling the pandemic earlier.

That would be a return of about 267% per year over four years, according to experts I spoke to. In contrast, an Oxford University study found an average return from private equity of just 11% per year.

Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the IMF, says this investment in global vaccinations would probably be “the highest return on public investment in modern history.” The aim is to vaccinate at least 40% of the global population by the end of this year and at least 60% by the first half of 2022.

Wealthy countries would do so much better economically with a global vaccination campaign that curbed the pandemic that they would generate an additional $1 trillion in tax revenue, the IMF calculated. In short, this vaccine initiative would pay for itself many times over simply in extra tax revenue.

What’s at stake is the well-being of our species. For decades, humans enjoyed remarkable progress against extreme poverty, illiteracy, disease, blindness and hunger. But because of the coronavirus, we’ve tumbled backward. When the virus ravages a low-income country, young girls are pulled out of school and are married off. Vitamin A supplementation may be skipped, causing micronutrient deficiencies that lead to more blindness and death. Children aren’t dewormed, so their food nourishes parasites rather than their bodies and brains, leaving them anemic and malnourished. Women can’t get contraception or maternal care, so some die in childbirth or suffer fistulas, internal injuries caused by childbirth.

All this threatens to magnify global inequality.

“A small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world,” noted Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization. “The ongoing vaccine crisis is a scandalous inequity that is perpetuating the pandemic. More than 75% of all vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries.”

Fewer than 1% of the population in countries like Zambia, Sudan and Tajikistan have received even a single vaccination.

It’s of course understandable that national leaders want to prioritize their own citizens. But as stockpiles grow, we need to pivot to fight the coronavirus worldwide — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s in our national interest.

The virus that we ignore in Zambia may incubate a virus that strikes us. We also have a chance to use this vaccine initiative to rebuild goodwill and soft power that frayed during the Trump presidency, and some of that may help us make progress at the next U.N. climate change conference in November.

I’m frankly a little skeptical of the IMF numbers, for they involve difficult guesswork, and vaccination in poor countries is a fraught process. Covax, the international vaccine effort, works heroically in difficult places where progress is painstaking. South Sudan, for example, let about 59,000 doses of vaccine expire before they could be used.

But even if the IMF estimates of benefits are off by an order of magnitude, so that the gain is only $900 billion rather than $9 trillion — that’s still an extraordinary 18-fold return on a $50 billion investment. The West can’t afford not to make it.

This is a chance for President Joe Biden to step up and assert United States leadership in the G-7 in a way that will benefit the entire world and also safeguard the American economy.

“We know how to end this pandemic,” said Seth Berkley, the chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “It would be almost criminal not to allow us the opportunity to deliver on our mission.”

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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