Talking Points

The time to build a giant vaccine factory is now

The latest data on the Omicron variant is very troubling. As the Financial Times' John Burn-Murdoch points out, it's creating a wave of infections in South Africa that thus far is moving even faster than the Delta variant. It's already been detected in multiple American states, and given poor U.S. surveillance of infection, it's probably all over the place already. It also seems that the immunity created by a prior infection is less good against Omicron, which may imply the American South is in for another devastating wave soon.

So long as millions and millions of people around the world are unvaccinated, above all in Africa, this could keep happening over and over. As Edward Luce points out (also at FT), the U.S. has pledged some two billion doses of vaccines to poorer countries, but so far has delivered only about 111 million. Only about 5 percent of Africans are vaccinated, which raises the risk of even worse variants coming after Omicron.

What the world needs is a giant excess of vaccines. Rich countries are always going to prioritize their own citizens, for good reasons or bad. We need so much that every single country can have a big surplus, and then some — so the more difficult bottlenecks in administration and hesitancy can be addressed.

Uncle Sam could have made this happen. Back in May, I pointed out that a large, state-owned vaccine factory that could churn out on the order of 15 billion doses of the mRNA shots (which are easier to manufacture en masse for technical reasons) per year would cost only about $4 billion — a microscopic pittance compared to the $5 trillion or so America has spent on pandemic relief measures. If we'd done it then, the first doses would be coming out about now.

The best time to start building such a factory would have been a year ago, but the second-best time would be right now. We may need Omicron-specific boosters, or other ones after that. And who knows what pandemics might be in store for the future? Let's make sure for the next one humanity isn't caught flat-footed.