Medical Examiner

The Most Important Promise Biden Made in His Speech to Congress

Biden in front of an American flag
The keeper of the vaccine arsenal. MELINA MARA/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, President Joe Biden addressed a sparse, masked-up sampling of Congress and acknowledged that America is in fact part of planet Earth—a planet on which there is still a raging pandemic.

“There’s no wall high enough to keep any virus out,” the president said in the middle of a speech that began with him declaring that America, at least, had finally turned the corner on the pandemic. “And our own vaccine supply, as it grows to meet our needs and we’re meeting them, will become an arsenal of vaccines for other countries, just as America was an arsenal for democracy in the world.”

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In an address in which Biden used his low-key, moderate-shaped persona to sell infrastructure and family policy plans that had already been announced, that “arsenal” line may have been the most important point. The president could provide all the stimulus checks in the world to Americans; the only way the pandemic will end is if countries like America start sharing their shots. We have a lot of shots; enough FDA-approved doses to vaccinate every American at least twice (though that figure includes some preorders for doses that are still being made). We also can’t ignore what the virus is doing globally—not just for humanitarian reasons, but for self-interested ones, too. It’s too soon to start even really thinking about reaching herd immunity in the U.S., as vaccines aren’t yet approved for use in kids, which means that we’ll still be vulnerable to outbreaks for a while. Meanwhile, global travel is coming back to life, and viruses are awfully good at hopping on planes. Plus, the more the virus circulates and infects people globally, the more opportunities it has to mutate into a concerning variant.

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The U.S. has already begun sharing vaccines, but hardly at “arsenal” levels. After lots of pressure, Biden announced earlier this week that we would send some 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine abroad. “That’s showing up to a four-alarm fire with an eyedropper full of water,” one expert noted to the New York Times.

Wednesday’s rhetoric marked a change from Biden’s past, more conditional comments on sharing our vaccines. (He’d said in March that we’d “try to help,” “if we have a surplus.”) But one frustrating wrinkle remains: He didn’t provide a timeline on which the arsenal-sharing would happen. He noted that “every American will have access” to vaccines first, which is a wishy-washy target. Given that the rest of us are able to make appointments, and in some places just show up for walk-in slots, Biden should make good on his ambitious vaccine remarks right now.

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