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Editorial: US must do more to help vaccinate the world. It's not about altruism.

APTOPIX Virus Outbreak India (copy)

A worker carries wood on a hand cart as multiple funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims burn at a crematorium on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, in May. File/Ishant Chauhan/AP

Two months ago, we said it was smart for President Joe Biden to share our nation's surplus vaccines with the many nations that are still grappling with COVID-19. It's not only shrewd diplomacy to raise our reservoir of goodwill, but it's also in our own self interest in the long run.

Yes, our world is interconnected, but the stark, heartbreaking dichotomy was apparent even then, as the vaccine was starting to go wanting across large swaths of the United States while a COVID surge in India overwhelmed that nation's health care system and created scenes of multiple funeral pyres blackening the landscape as its death toll skyrocketed.

As the United States continues its steady return to normal, most of us probably don't want to think about the pandemic still raging in other parts of the world, but it is, and we should. And as its rapid spread made painfully clear in the late winter and spring of 2020, the virus pays little attention to national borders. So until the world reaches herd immunity, through either infections or vaccinations, COVID will continue to pose a threat and, worse still, could mutate into something no longer blocked by our existing vaccines.

We need to set aside any "Mission Accomplished" thinking.

While we had success creating vaccines under then-President Donald Trump's Operation Warp Speed, we now need a broader, global partnership with nations and the private sector to get the world vaccinated.

As CEO Mark Suzman said when he announced the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's additional $250 million donation to fight COVID, the world now has much of the science it needs to end this pandemic, and the battle has spread well beyond the lab: "It’s expanding to the factories that will make the drugs, tests, and vaccines; to the warehouses, planes, and refrigerator trucks that will deliver them; to the clinics and health workers that will sit at the end of the supply chain and administer them to patients."

Indeed it is, and the United States needs to play a larger role in this expanded effort because we're in a race against time, locally and globally, to make ourselves — all of us, all across the world — sufficiently immune. In the next lane is the virus itself, which continues to mutate into more contagious forms. As Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle noted, Israel's experience is showing that Pfizer-BioNTech's mRNA vaccine is proving less effective in staving off COVID-19'S hyperinfectious delta variant. The fact that fewer vaccinated individuals need hospitalization does little to put a happy face on that news.

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In short, will we achieve herd immunity and tamp down COVID before it finds a way around our vaccines? Only time will tell.

The delta variant has arrived here in South Carolina. On Wednesday, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported a dozen cases of it, and DHEC's public health director, Dr. Brannon Traxler, noted that only a random sample of positive COVID-19 specimens are tested for a variant, so there could be more. Many more. “Data are showing that the proportion of delta variants identified is increasing rapidly,” Dr. Traxler said.

The increase already has prompted the Medical University of South Carolina to reinstate a mask mandate for doctors, nurses and staff working in clinical areas. It is time for all of us to do more, on all levels, beginning with President Biden and congressional leaders who can give other nations more help to produce and help to administer vaccines as well.

At the state and local level, we should support those working to improve South Carolina's relatively low vaccination rate. While about 50% of eligible South Carolinians had received at least one shot as of late last week, our rate still lags well behind most other states and well below the goal of having at least 70% fully vaccinated. We can't emphasize this point enough: Almost all U.S. citizens now dying from COVID-19 were not vaccinated. We respect those who have questions and concerns about the vaccines and their side effects, but they must realize that like it or not, they are balancing different risks — and the risk from getting a vaccine is looking better and better compared to the risk of contracting a serious case of COVID. 

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said recently the vaccine is so effective that "nearly every death, especially among adults, due to COVID-19, is, at this point, entirely preventable," so such deaths are, in her words, "particularly tragic." Unfortunately, these preventable deaths will continue, particularly in low-vaccinated communities, and could surge as the weather cools later this year. According to The Associated Press, modeling by a University of Washington professor of health metrics sciences, Ali Mokdad, suggests that the nation will again hit 1,000 deaths per day next year.

It's OK to be tired, burned out and frustrated with this pandemic, but it's not OK to forget about it.

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