COVID-19 doesn’t care about New York or New Delhi

January 03, 2021

COVID-19 doesn’t care about New York or New Delhi

By Marian W. Wentworth and Wade Warren

This article was first published in The Hill.

On Dec. 14, the United States crossed a grisly milestone of 300,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic. That same week, we saw the first glimmer of light in this long, dark tunnel of a year as frontline health care workers began to receive an effective vaccine. 

Public health experts say we will be in a much better place come late summer of 2021. We think that perspective severely discounts the billions of people living outside of the United States, the European Union (EU) and other wealthier countries — and in doing so, underestimates the difficulty of a true global recovery from health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

This past spring, in the absence of a coordinated national strategy, governors were largely left to choose their own path through the storm. Some closest to the early outbreaks imposed lockdown measures, while others continued with business as usual. Today the entire country is reeling with infection rates and deaths, setting new records daily and hospitals nearing full capacity.

Ending the pandemic depends on meaningful collaboration with our neighbors. COVID-19 does not care about urban, rural or sovereign boundaries. Remember, it took only a few weeks from the first reported deaths caused by the virus in Wuhan, China, to the first fatalities in the EU and the U.S. 

It is both a moral imperative — and in the strategic interest of wealthier countries — to aid in the pursuit of vaccinating 7.8 billion global citizens. Our global health security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Yet even in fully industrialized nations with robust health infrastructure, the logistics of the world’s largest-ever vaccination campaign are daunting. Add in leading vaccines’ sub-arctic temperature requirements and the complexities of reaching lower and middle income countries’ remote locales and overflowing urban centers, and you begin to understand the challenges ahead.

Because of how interconnected the world is today, the economic impacts of COVID-19 have been more severe than in past pandemics. Modern economies depend on global travel, global trade and global supply chains. To combat economic instability and severe global health insecurity, we must look to an ideal combination of meaningful partnerships and innovative supply chain technology to deliver COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

This ideal combination isn’t an entirely new concept. Through decades of work in delivering treatments for malaria and HIV or in making family planning accessible to populations far from industrial centers, we have learned how to hone complex supply chains and work closely with governments, civil society, the private sector and health care workers on locally led solutions. The most famous of these is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Begun in 2003, today PEPFAR supports more than 17 million men, women and children with life-saving antiretroviral therapy

From these experiences, we know more about what a 21st century solution to the supply chain looks like. Take, for example, the idea of the Control Tower, which is a set of tools and techniques that enable experts to proactively manage their end-to-end supply chains through increased visibility and predictive insights. Some experts estimate that as much as 20 percent of vaccines are lost due to cold chain issues or irregularities, but a modern, effective Control Tower can monitor temperature irregularities in real time and guide interventions before the product is lost. A Control Tower is a tool, but it is not meant to be used by itself. Instead, to be at its most effective, it should be paired with other cutting-edge technologies, knowledge of local contexts and in coordination with local stakeholders. 

It took HIV and AIDS reaching catastrophic levels in the global south and years of robust domestic activism to secure congressional action and the creation of PEPFAR. We cannot make the mistake of inaction again. In the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen the importance of the public and private sectors working together to develop effective technological and people-focused solutions. Congress and the new administration should take our investments in the global health supply chain and inject new resources and capabilities to help bolster local solutions and public health initiatives across the globe — to combat and defeat this pandemic and the next one. 

The human toll of COVID-19 in the United States has been devastating. With the first vaccination in the middle of December, we can enjoy a sense of hope this holiday season. However, the pandemic and its resulting economic disruption and potential geo-political repercussions will only subside once every link in the global health chain is equally strengthened. It is in America’s long-term self-interest to invest in a global solution. It is also the right thing to do.