Since the pandemic began, the United States has spent 7.5 times more money on nuclear weapons than on global vaccine donations. Stated another way, the money put towards global vaccine donations has amounted to just 13% of the money put toward nuclear weapons. The comparison shows that, even during a shared international crisis, in which an outbreak anywhere threatens people everywhere, the U.S. political apparatus is far more willing to fund instruments of death than vaccines that protect life.
Zain Rizvi, research director for the corporate watchdog organization Public Citizen, helped In These Times calculate the total number of dollars that went toward the purchase of global vaccine donations: roughly $7 billion. This number can be found by adding up contracts from the Department of Defense — available here, here and here. (That these contracts were released by the DOD reflects a decision made early in the pandemic to run Operation Warp Speed contracts through the Pentagon, instead of the Department of Health and Human Services.) Rizvi noted over email that “the U.S. also donated some doses internationally from its existing domestic vaccine contracts, but that was fairly limited (and not much transparency around it).”
Almost half of this stockpile hasn’t actually shipped yet. The Biden administration purchased 1 billion doses (at a price of roughly $3.5 billion per 500 million doses), but according to the State Department, just 525 million doses have been shipped thus far. Because so many of these doses have not yet been distributed internationally, and it’s not clear when or if they ever will, $7 billion is probably high — in other words, the price tag for the vaccines that have actually shipped is lower than the $7 billion sum.
Lindsay Koshgarian, the program director for the National Priorities Project, which researches U.S. military spending, helped In These Times calculate U.S. nuclear weapons spending throughout the pandemic, by prorating the Department of Energy’s fiscal year nuclear weapons spending starting March 11, 2020 (the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic) and going until April 15, 2022. The DOE’s nuclear weapons spending during this period comes to $53 billion. This sum includes money put towards the nuclear stockpile itself, but not the delivery systems for these weapons (like submarines, bombers and missiles). This makes the total analogous to the $7 billion figure for vaccine donations, which excludes other funding for the global response to Covid-19, including the delivery and distribution of vaccines.
According to Koshgarian, the $53 billion includes money towards new “low-yield” nuclear weapons, “maintenance and security” of the stockpiles and “modernization, which is a complicated array of upgrades to weapons.” Unlike vaccines, which are injected into arms and then gone, nuclear weapons require constant funding commitments. “Nuclear weapons last for a long time and we have a stockpile of thousands,” says Koshgarian. “Maintaining that costs money and we’ve been doing it for decades.”
“What’s keeping us safe: Is it maintaining this huge nuclear stockpile or delivering these vaccines?” poses Koshgarian. “That’s the operative question.”
This question takes on new urgency as tensions between the United States and Russia — which, together, possess 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons — ratchet up following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Any use of nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia would be catastrophic, and could unleash a nuclear winter with the capacity to kill off considerable human life. Anti-nuclear-weapons activists, or those simply in favor of reducing the U.S. stockpile, insist that mutually assured destruction is not a good policy — and that the large stash of U.S. nuclear weapons only escalates the global arms race.
Yet all indicators suggest nuclear spending will remain high. The Biden administration is using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to call for $50.9 billion in nuclear weapons spending for the fiscal year of 2023 (a figure that includes both delivery systems and the weapons themselves). The president’s budget proposes $16.5 billion for the nuclear weapons themselves.
This call for more nuclear spending comes as global vaccine funding dissolves. Earlier this month, Senators said they had reached a deal on a $10 billion Covid-19 aid package, but it did not include any funding for global vaccinations. They had stripped out $5 billion in global vaccine funding after Republicans insisted new aid be partially financed by drawing on Covid-19 relief spending that had been previously approved, but not yet spent. (That package could come up for a Senate vote in coming weeks.)
The Biden administration had already fallen far behind on its pledges. According to a report released by Public Citizen on March 8, in order to meet its promise to donate 1.1 billion doses by the end of September, the Biden administration would have to increase its rate of donations by 50%. Without funding for global vaccinations, the chances of meeting this benchmark have grown even more slim.
Meanwhile, a proposal from India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization to temporarily suspend intellectual property rules to allow for the production of cheaper, generic versions of Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments across the Global South has been stalled since it was first introduced in October 2020. In May 2021, the Biden administration said it would reverse the Trump administration’s outright opposition to the proposed waiver, but in practice, the administration has not aggressively pushed for a deal. And a compromise agreement leaked last month to the press, which the United States had a big hand in shaping, has been panned by global health advocates for excluding diagnostics and treatments, and cutting out entire countries from the agreement.
That the Biden administration is not robustly throwing its support behind a real intellectual property waiver, nor making good on its vaccine donation pledges, is playing a part in a global crisis of vaccine equality or, as some put it, vaccine apartheid. Africa, by far, is the continent with the lowest vaccination rate in the world: Just 20.3% of its population has received at least one dose. In the United States and Canada, by contrast, 78% have received at least one dose. In Burundi, just 0.1% of the population is fully vaccinated, and in Congo, just 0.6% is.
Rectifying these staggering inequalities is not only a moral imperative in itself — it also keeps the entire world more safe. Any uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 gives rise to new variants, which then send waves of sickness and death across the globe. As the World Health Organization puts it, “the virus that causes Covid-19, will continue to evolve as long as it continues to spread. The more that the virus spreads, the more pressure there is for the virus to change. So, the best way to prevent more variants from emerging is to stop the spread of the virus.”
Comparing dollars spent on global vaccines with dollars spent on nuclear weapons is useful because the former is so obviously needed to curb a common, global crisis, while the latter is the most lethal, destructive weapon humanity has ever created. But there are other rubrics by which to evaluate the moral fabric of the U.S. government. When considered as a fraction of total U.S. military spending (which Koshgarian calculated by prorating fiscal year spending), money put towards global vaccine purchase appears even more tiny. Since the pandemic began, the U.S. government has spent 214 times more money on the U.S. military than on vaccines for global donation. Or, the money put toward global vaccine donations is less than 0.5% of military spending during this period. This is in a country that already has the best-funded military on Earth, larger than the combined military spending of the next 11 countries.
Of course, budgets are not exclusionary: The United States could, theoretically, give hefty funding to the U.S. military and to global vaccine donations. But the fact that the former has received 214 times the funding of the latter reveals a great deal about where U.S. priorities lie.
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.