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Vaccine Nationalists Are Not Immune

Rich countries' failure to lead a coordinated global response to the pandemic has been regarded as a moral failure. But now that the continued spread of the virus elsewhere is producing new variants, it has turned out to be a practical failure, too.

BOSTON – Although mass vaccination campaigns are picking up speed in the West, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic still is not even in sight. For that, the United States and other rich countries have only themselves to blame.

It has been clear at least since the early summer of 2020 that even with effective vaccines in hand, COVID-19 will not be stopped until populations everywhere have achieved herd immunity – when the share of people still susceptible to infection is so small that the disease can no longer spread. It isn’t enough for any individual country to reach this point. As long as the virus is still circulating in other parts of the world, random mutations will continue to occur. Some will be disadvantageous to the virus, but some will render it even more contagious or deadly.

Again, we already know this. Just since December, three highly infectious strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been identified. With a significantly higher transmission rate (and potentially a greater fatality rate), the British variant, B.1.1.7, is already spreading rapidly within the US and Europe. The South African variant, B.1.351, may be even more contagious. And the Brazilian strain, P.1, may be the most dangerous of all.

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