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Opinion: The COVID-19 vaccine gives America a chance to lead the world again — just keep Big Pharma out

In his first weeks on the job, President Joe Biden has put forward numerous executive orders that show his administration’s commitment to returning the U.S. to a leadership role in the global response to COVID-19. This new approach reflects a clear lesson from the Trump administration’s failed example: We cannot succeed by going it alone. 

The U.S. and other countries share a common goal: ending the destruction caused by this virus. Full recovery from the pandemic for Americans requires U.S. states to work together and also in cooperation with countries across the globe to restore health and economic security.

Former President Donald Trump’s “America First” nationalism still carries severe implications. While it may not seem like it right now, the U.S. has reserved enough doses to vaccinate every American over four times over. But worldwide, frontline workers, teachers, and older people with chronic conditions may have to wait years until they get protection from the virus.  

Vaccinating every American and ensuring equitable access to the vaccine for less-wealthy nations depends more on politics than on resources. Access in a global pandemic should be based on risk level and need, not a country’s financial standing. What’s more, bold choices now by elected officials could create a surge in global vaccine production to meet global demand.

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Biden has a tremendous opportunity to restore the U.S. as a global leader on many fronts. But guaranteeing affordable and equitable access to the vaccine will require the president to do more — rejecting business as usual and adopting serious measures to end drug corporations’ monopoly control over prices.  

Fair and equitable access to a vaccine for Americans and people all over the world is not a job the U.S. can leave to the drug companies. Recently, more than 100 leaders in public health, faith, economics and other areas signed an open letter to Biden, calling on the administration to make the COVID vaccine a global public good. Because as long as drug corporations are allowed to set their own prices for vaccines and treatments, the same drug companies that are promising benevolence right now will default to price-gouging. It’s happened before. Price-gouging on all kinds of basic medicines that have been developed with public dollars over the years foreshadows what we can expect if COVID medicines are left in the hands of Big Pharma.  

It’s time for an approach that meets the moment — a “people’s vaccine” that prioritizes equitable and universal global access over industry profits. Biden and Congress should work together to pass the Pandemic Treatment Access and Affordability Act as part of an effort to ensure fair, affordable access for everyone.

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Americans must now move forward with the confidence that we can, as Biden says, “build back better” after the Trump administration’s broken promises, division and dismantling of America’s greatest achievements and international relationships. Making the COVID-19 vaccine a global public good is an unmissable opportunity for the U.S. to lead again. Yet reinstating the U.S. as a global leader is not automatic based on an election outcome. Leadership has to be earned through decisive action that displays American resources and know-how to a world in a crisis.

Margarida Jorge is campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now. Niko Lusiani is a senior adviser at Oxfam.

Also read: Expect to get COVID-19 shots for years to come, Johnson & Johnson CEO says

More: Democrats unveil ambitious child-care tax credit, but will it be enough?

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