Rising rates of COVID-19 infections in Brazil and other countries in Latin America are posing a risk to the U.S. in its own battle to overcome the pandemic.
Advocates are pushing for increased efforts to support global vaccinations, especially in poorer countries, while Latin Americans of means travel to the United States to take advantage of a surplus of shots.
The Biden administration has provided an initial down payment of $2 billion to the global COVID-19 vaccine alliance (COVAX); shipped emergency materials to India to help stock up its vaccine development; and “loaned” millions of vaccines to Mexico and Canada.
Democratic lawmakers have called on the administration to prioritize Latin America in receiving any surplus of vaccines, but officials are tight-lipped over making any immediate and pronounced commitments.
In Latin America, attitudes toward vaccination have more or less mirrored those in the United States, with some people eager to receive inoculation and others either distrustful or politically disinclined from taking the vaccines.
But the lack of available vaccinations has added complexity to the process in a continent that hosts some of the world’s most dense population centers, as well as some of the most difficult-to-access remote areas.
Inequality has been exacerbated throughout the region by the pandemic, as most people can’t afford many basic preventive measures, while elites more comfortably access protective equipment, exercise social distancing and seek out vaccines.
This has also contributed to a rise in vaccine tourism to the United States, including by middle-class Mexicans within driving distance of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Because the border region is so integrated, it’s very easy to cross the border to get vaccinated and then return to your place of origin,” said Dolia Estévez, a senior Mexican correspondent in Washington who has covered Mexican vaccine tourism.
By some estimates, more than a million Mexicans have crossed the border by foot, car or plane to get vaccinated.
That includes at least two members of Mexico’s Supreme Court, one of whom had to cancel her vaccination trip to Texas after a report by Estévez made her plans public.
The Texas Department of Health says that 99.06 percent of vaccine recipients are residents, with only 0.04 of those who received vaccines hailing from another country.
In March, the State Department clarified a tweet by the U.S. Embassy in Peru that appeared to encourage vaccine tourism — alerting Peruvians that seeking medical treatment in the United States was a legitimate reason to apply for a visa, but that vaccine eligibility was at the discretion of states.
“To be clear: we are not encouraging foreign nationals to travel to the United States to attempt to secure a vaccination,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in response to a request for comment from The Hill.
“We are focused, first and foremost, on providing safe and effective vaccines to the American people. … Embassy Lima received numerous questions from prospective visa applicants about whether they can apply for a visa to travel to the United States to seek medical care. This response was an effort to transparently clarify the regulations governing specific types of travel under a visitor visa,” the spokesperson continued.
One member of Congress, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Hill that controversy surrounding vaccine tourism is a reason to increase vaccinations among America’s neighbors amid a refugee and migrant crisis at the border.
“I think it’s certainly possible that you have people with means from those nations that have come over here, but you also have a lot of folks coming from those countries and migrating to our southern border,” the lawmaker said, “and so we have an interest, not only for their health but for the sake of our own health, to make sure that we help vaccinate them as soon as possible.”
Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksLiberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges Hillicon Valley: Tech companies duke it out at Senate hearing | Seven House Republicans vow to reject donations from Big Tech House passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department MORE (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Conference on the Americas on Tuesday that he has called for the Biden administration to prioritize Latin America and the Caribbean countries in donating surplus vaccines. The chairman’s request echoed a letter by House Democratic lawmakers sent in March to the president.
The U.S. focus on its most immediate neighbors is fueling some resentment in other Latin American countries.
Brazil, in particular, sees a lack of attention to its plight. Its situation is dire, as more than 400,000 Brazilians have died of COVID-19, and nearly 15 million have contracted the disease.
“There’s some frustration among Brazilians and also among U.S. employers that have a lot of employees in Brazil that Brazil is being left behind in the vaccine distribution equation,” said Gabrielle Trebat, the head of the Brazil and Southern Cone practice at McLarty Associates, a D.C.-based international consulting firm.
Asked if the U.S. was seeking to do more to help Brazil, State Department chief deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said the nation was “committed to collaborating with our partners in Brazil, as well as the government and the private sector, to support the COVID-19 response effort.”
“And we certainly empathize and lament the loss of life in Brazil due to COVID-19, but we’ll also continue to work together to put an end to the pandemic’s high toll on life as well as any of their social and economic impacts to their livelihoods as well,” Porter added.
Dr. Andres Vecino-Ortiz, a health economist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said improving and promoting vaccination rates across Latin America will help stem the spread of infections and are important to beat back increasingly dangerous variants that are emerging.
“Speed is critical. If you can reduce transmission faster, you reduce the risk of having new variants that are less sensitive to these vaccines. That’s definitely a factor that needs to be taken in account,” he said.
Yet he called for more efforts beyond just donating vaccines, saying Latin American countries need to improve contact tracing and genomic surveillance. The international community further needs to come to a decision on whether to permit patent use of vaccines by other countries, so that they can produce their own vaccines without having to wait for shipments.
On Tuesday, a handful of House Democrats called for the White House to issue a temporary patent waiver so other countries could produce their own vaccines.
“We need more urgent action by the Administration to remove any objection to the TRIPS [World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement] waiver and permit sharing of the intellectual property required for vaccine manufacturing to get underway immediately,” the lawmakers wrote. “With an increasing public outcry, the Administration must act.”