JPI’s Roya Lotfi sat down with Mr. Robert Dry, former counselor for scientific, environmental, technological, and health affairs at the U.S. embassy in Paris and current adjunct professor at NYU, to discuss the COVID-19 Vaccine, its development, and its distribution worldwide.
Meet Professor Robert Dry:
With academic interests in environmental governance, U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf region, and the institution and practice of diplomacy, Professor Dry is a foreign affairs professional turned international relations instructor.
Professor Dry served as an American diplomat in Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Oman, China, Vietnam, and France, as well as in a range of assignments at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. During the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 and thereafter, he was the chief of mission (long-term chargé d’affaires) in Muscat, the Sultanate of Oman, where he facilitated the U.S. and allied invasion of Afghanistan and counter terrorism campaign. This political/military assignment represented a departure from economic and scientific and technological postings, including as economic counselor at the U.S. embassy in Hanoi with the goal of completing normalization of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. In another assignment, he served as counselor for scientific, environmental, technological, and health affairs at the U.S. embassy in Paris, negotiating with the French government the world’s current largest science project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (‘ITER’), designed to prove the utility of fusion energy for the 22nd century. Earlier, he negotiated with the Saudi Arabian government its accession to the WTO (eventually successful) and the Kyoto Protocol under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (ultimately unsuccessful).
As his final diplomatic assignment, the Department of State assigned Professor Dry as diplomat in residence and visiting professor at the City College of New York. In addition to recruiting for the U.S. Foreign Service, he taught and lectured throughout the Greater New York Region, including, for example, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Since 2010, he has taught at the Department of Politics and its successor IR Program at NYU. For two years he developed capstone projects at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. In 2019, Professor Dry served as Visiting Professor of Government and Podlich Distinguished Fellow at Claremont McKenna College in California teaching global environmental governance.
As a teaching philosophy, Professor Dry seeks to marry practical, pragmatic and legal (international law) IR studies together with IR academic scholarship in his courses. These include Global Environmental Governance: Approaches, Structures, and Diplomacy (see Fall 2021 offerings); the United States and the Persian Gulf; and Foundations for Diplomacy. His education includes an MA from Glasgow University, Scotland; a JD from George Washington University; and an LLM (international environmental law) from the University of Maryland. He is married to Ellen Kerrigan Dry, a practicing attorney and equestrian, and they live in Middleburg, Virginia. They have two lovely daughters, a wonderful new grandson, four horses and an Australian shepherd.
Roya Lotfi: Hello, and welcome to JPI Faculty Insights. My name is Roya and I’m a graduate student in the International Relations program here at NYU. This episode I want to talk about probably the biggest international topic in the past almost two years now. And that’s the COVID-19 pandemic.
Audio clip of Christina Macfarlane on CNN: A sars-like virus, which has infected hundreds in China, has now reached the United States.
Audio clip of David Muir on ABC News: Good evening. As we come on the air in the west tonight, President Trump addressing the American people just a short time ago as the toll of the Coronavirus widens here in the US. The president’s words come after the World Health Organization today declared the Coronavirus a global pandemic.
Audio clip of Anja Kueppers-McKinnon on DW News: Two years to the day since the World Health Organization set up an emergency crisis team in response to an outbreak of unusual pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan, China.
RL: More specifically, I want to talk about the COVID-19 vaccine and the international efforts to create the vaccine and also spread it across the world. So today I’m joined by Professor Robert Dry from the MAIR program who’s worked extensively in the global healthcare sector. So, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself?
Professor Robert Dry: Hello, great to be here. I’m Robert Dry. I’m an adjunct professor at NYU in the IR program. And I’ve actually been teaching there since 2010 when I retired from the United States Foreign Service, and I had been, back then, the Department of State’s Diplomat in Residence for New York and surrounding areas. And I had served previously for 30 plus years in the Department of State. I mostly had spent my career as what is referred to as an Economic Officer, and there is a subspecialty under the economic career as a Foreign Service Officer, and that is as a Science and Technology Officer. Think of Captain – or Commander Spock of the Starship Enterprise, even though obviously, I don’t have the same ears. And I was counselor of the Embassy for Scientific Affairs and Nonproliferation Affairs at the US Embassy Paris for a period of four years from 2004 to 2008. And I was Acting Counselor for Scientific and Technological and Environmental and Health affairs, also at the US Embassy in Jakarta. I’m an adjunct professor, and oftentimes the adjuncts are practitioners. So they don’t they don’t come up through the academic system itself. So I don’t have a PhD, I have three law related degrees, all advanced degrees.
RL: Thank you, I’m sure you have a lot to say and a lot of insight to give on the topic of today’s episode, which is the COVID-19 vaccine.
Audio clip of Kathy Park on NBC News: Tonight Pfizer and BioNTech’s emergency authorization requests for a COVID-19 vaccine is in the hands of the FDA.
Audio clip of Karl Stefanovic on 9 News Australia: The race to find the COVID-19 vaccine is ramping up with Moderna seeking emergency approval of its jab from the US and Europe.
RL: So diving in, the first thing I want to ask you about is about the international cooperation that needs to happen in order to create such a vaccine. And I know you’ve worked on situations like this in the past. So can you just speak on that a bit in terms of international governments working together, and also organizations as well outside of the government?
RD: Sure, yeah. No, there’s basically two components to science diplomacy. Well, there’s a little bit more than that. But one is bilateral cooperation between countries and places where I served, you had to take, for example, Indonesia, where I served for three years, there was a US Naval Research Unit. And there were medical doctors, there were medical researchers, there were scientists, and they would collect viruses, they would collect diseases, they would collect mosquitoes. And incredibly useful to have these forward deployed research units. And that’s because the US military is really keen on tropical medicine. They work very closely with their health authorities in Indonesia. And then as I, when I was a science counselor in Paris, I visited the Minister of Health, and the Minister of Health basically said that he was experiencing something of a nightmare in that there was a Chikungunya pandemic in the island of La Réunion, and the problem was that there was no vaccination. And, you know, there were, it’s just a mosquito-transmitted disease. So I then contacted US health authorities, and they told me to contact the Army Medical Research Unit in Fort Dietrich, in Maryland, which I did. And it turned out that they had a trial vaccine that they were looking at, however, they had stopped research on it. They hadn’t gone through the full set of clinical trials. And the reason was because their objective, since this was post-2001, was on counterterrorism and bioterrorism issues. So, one of my jobs as the Science Counselor at the US Embassy in Paris was to link the two together. So that’s, you know, that’s one is sort of the bilateral cooperative piece. And in the bilateral piece, you know, there’s also the multilateral piece. And in the multilateral piece, of course, the central element is the World Health Organization. And there are lots of representatives of WHO, throughout the world, and they focus in on particular diseases, and they focus in on particular issues. But there are these connections. The CDC has representatives, the Center for Disease Control has representatives. Unfortunately, with regard to the most recent situation of COVID-19, there were only a handful of CDC folk actually out in the world and as CDC representatives, but CDC does have a system of when there is a disease, it sends out their epidemiologists to do this incredible research and talk about bravery. They go to some of these laboratories, there’s much talk about Wuhan laboratory. And it’s not uncommon for CDC to send out folk to visit these laboratories and talk with the scientists there about not only their system of control, but also to keep up and keep in touch with the nature of viral research that these institute’s are engaged in.
When I was in France, I worked on the H5N1 problem, which is the avian influenza, yeah, the avian influenza. And the French government was all over this. And part of it was because the French government felt, was really concerned, having gone through this period of high heat and excess deaths from dehydration in 2003. And could have tumbled the government for its lack of preparedness for that climate change related phenomenon. And so, the French, the French government, when we started hearing about H5N1, started to get really concerned and started, actually pulled together a lot of what was called Tamiflu back then, which was a treatment that would that would lessen the severity of certain influenzas, and actually had a huge volume of this, this treatment and, and sort of put everything into addressing H5N1. And we went through a series of country scenarios. And also international scenarios: how would, we’d do desktops, we would work together and go over to their facilities. I would represent the US government, and in the US Embassy itself, I was the point person on what to do. The reason why this was so concerning was because the mortality rate if you contracted H5N1 was about 50%, which was much more severe, much, much worse than the COVID-19 disease. And even considerably more threatening than the Spanish Flu of 1918, which was about 2% and led to estimates of between 50 and 100 million deaths. So at that time, there was a great deal of interest in looking at, you know, influenzas and looking at vaccinations, looking at all kinds of ways in order to address this. Tamiflu was considered to be important as a treatment. And the French government because they have a centralized system of medicine, they actually came out with, you know, pre-positioning a lot of these kinds of vaccinations, they – not vaccinations, treatments – throughout their country. And interestingly, internationally, their diplomats are, or their system of government, their health system is governmental, fundamentally, even though there is a private piece to it. And so there were negotiations between the United States government and the French government, because French diplomats wanted to be able to distribute Tamiflu to their citizens, even in the United States. And of course, in the United States, only medical doctors could prescribe this kind of medicine. Interestingly the United States’s response to the question of if they had adequate supplies of Tamiflu at time, the treatment, then the question would be how would the United States deliver this to, you know, to people around the country? And our answer to that was to use the US postal system because it was a treatment as opposed to a vaccination. And then, you know, we started thinking through scenarios of if this entered into a pandemic state, then would the Postal Service be essentially targeted by criminals and others who needed or wanted access. If the treatment were life and death, then, as it is with the COVID-19 virus, how do you, how do you address those kinds of issues?
So as you can sort of see, with all these issues coming out, and these kinds of kinds of things, you need a lot of pre-planning, you need to have protocols in place, you need to have thought through the ramifications of a lot of these things. And, you know, back then I think we did a reasonable job of this, and we’re focused, like a laser on the question of the transmissibility of the H5N1 between, you know, chickens or whatever, in South Vietnam, and unlike the US response, in particular, but in connection with COVID-19, I mean, and part and also one part of thinking through these things, is the messaging and, and certainly that got off to a terrible start in this country. And, and rapidly became politicized, and so forth, as did vaccinations, as did masking and so forth, remedial measures, and, and that is exactly the way these things are not supposed to take place.
Audio clip of Keith Jones on NBC10 Philadelphia: Science versus politics, that’s part of what’s becoming a trend across the country, and it’s led to a divide over the COVID vaccine.
Audio clip of President Donald Trump: A lot of people don’t want to wear masks. There are a lot of people who think that masks are not good.
Audio clip of CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield: I’m not going to comment directly about the president, but I am going to comment as the CDC Director that face masks, these face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have.
RD: And similarly, of course, this is during a pandemic is the time when you need to gather and support and work with a central governmental institution established for the purpose, which is the World Health Organization, which is designed in order to address some of these kinds of issues. Similarly, other entities, international entities, like those responsible for governing transportation between countries and so forth, they have to get into the picture as well. And, you know, international leadership is very, very important, funding is very important, and so on, and so forth.
RL: And it definitely seems like the start of the pandemic was very rocky, and there was a lot of issues there. But at some point, it seems like it kind of went a bit on the right track, especially in terms of creating the vaccine because it was this huge success, so to say, because it was the fastest vaccine like ever created. And it was like a huge international effort with cooperation between all these different actors around the world. Can you speak a bit on what changed and how that became so successful?
RD: Well, you know, the Defense Production Act was used by the United States to provide lots of monetary funding to stimulate some of the pharmaceutical companies to engage in rapid research. But the phenomenon of actually finding this mRNA system of vaccines have been something that had been under-studied for years, if not decades. Again, the old system of developing vaccines, using millions of eggs and, and having the chemical reproduce itself and using the egg as a supporting substance, as the growing substance, I guess you could say, it was just slow, out of date. So these other forms, this so-called cellular systems of vaccination were being developed. And so that was important. I think, and I can’t corroborate this, but I think that Pfizer, which is one of the early in the United States that proceeded didn’t, for its own interests did not necessarily want to take all of the US government funding for this, for developing the vaccine. Actually utilization, transportation, or those kinds of things, yes, but not necessarily for those patentable aspects associated with the vaccine itself. When scientists engage in international scientific collaborative work, there is a different set of intellectual property issues and concerns and thresholds and so forth. And in fact, scientists like to make things happen. Whereas once it gets into the commercial domain, it is restrictive. You know, the entity that holds the patent to something holds on to that patent, and can get royalties, or can get royalties for licensing it to third parties and so forth. And, you know, if the United States government or any government perhaps works with a pharmaceutical company, then there’s going to have to be arrangements made as to ownership and release of the patented material. But in any event, I think money was a clear factor in all of this. And the availability of the defense production act, and the mere fact that the United States is the richest country on the planet, bar none. Although European countries, in many ways are richer, in as much as many European countries don’t have the same debt to GDP as the United States does. We are now at about 100%. But the United States currency is you know, a global currency and so forth. So we can, we essentially print money, for a number of reasons we all know about it. But that allowed the United States pharmaceutical companies to do what they needed to do, and to move forward very rapidly into the manufacturing process.
And, but then, you were right, I think to a certain degree, we got an early vaccine. And that was, you know, again, a lot of scientists at these companies in particular standing on the shoulders of giants that have been researching collaboratively around the world for years and years on this kind of subject. How do they address these things? And, you know, it is phenomenal, this, what has been done in the last, you know, decade or two or three decades in biotechnology, the capabilities are just, boggle the mind. But at the same time, how can we best provide provisions to the rest of the world with vaccines? And, again, we started getting very quickly into the questions of equities and justice and health justice and environmental justice, and God knows what all.
And the other fact is that this pandemic knows no boundaries. And if you let it circulate in a third world country, or a developing economy that doesn’t have access to vaccines, who knows what variant will develop. We already have the Delta and then more recently, people have been talking about a Delta Asterix and Delta Plus, and so forth. So for our own, in the United States national security interest, we need to clamp down on this disease as best as possible. And I’m glad to see that the current administration is interested in not only providing vaccines, purchasing vaccines, you know, from companies that it has relationships with, and providing them overseas in different ways. Also, other countries are doing so. And bravo, you know, more power to them. But it isn’t just to improve soft power, it’s for our own interest, because we need to clamp down on this disease. The same thing applies to the United States, the anti-vaxxer, anti vaxxers, some of them probably have very good reasons not to have vaccinations, but most people should be vaccinated as a matter of, in the public interest and in public health. And, you know, in order to get to this crowd immunity, herd immunity, we need to have a very high proportion of Americans vaccinated and masked. And that pandemic is part of these global issues like health, like the environment, like weapons of mass destruction, pollution, poverty, lack of sanitation, all of these kinds of things they are referred to, they can be referred to as the “new threat set” on the global stage. This means that governments need to get behind addressing global issues working together on them, and collaborating on the scientific ends more and more, and then working together on, in intergovernmental organizations like WTO – WHO pardon me – to find ways in which to, you know, not only take care of your own population, but to to work together collectively with other countries in the world. And, you know, the last administration was, which was hyper-nationalist, was not nationalist in the sense because its actions were against the United States people in many ways by its failures, not only failures in the manner in which the referred in many ways to this disease, but to the manner in which it addressed the WHO and other countries and so on and so forth. Having served in China in the Foreign Service, and in Asia and other countries in the Middle East, one gets nowhere internationally by insulting other countries and other countries’ leaders. As a diplomat you’re an optimist and a bridge builder. And those are the things that need to be done in order to improve cooperation internationally to address the new threat set.
RL: Yeah, absolutely. And I want to go back a bit to a point that you made earlier about the financial barriers that there are in place in terms of the pharmaceutical companies trying to protect their product, and how that’s making it hard to get this vaccine spread throughout the world, especially in underdeveloped areas.
Audio clip of Nicholas Watt on BBC News: There’s been a huge debate about getting the World Trade Organization to waive what are called the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights that’s known as TRIPS. The advocates for that say, look at Brazil and India, look at the developing world. 1.1 billion COVID vaccines administered so far across the world, only 18 million in Africa.
RL: So there’s that financial aspect to it. But are there also maybe some other aspects to it, such as protocols and governance and these international laws in place that are making it hard for this vaccine and this inoculation rate to be global?
RD: Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, these companies will and can license this technology and receive royalties for that. And it would be a little bit unusual for a lot of these large numbers of pharmaceutical firms to give up large amounts of potential revenue, without compensation. So someone, some entity, I mean the Gates Foundation, for example, could perhaps jump in and purchase medicines or vaccines, treatments, we’re now getting into the treatments area as well with regard to this disease. And they can also, as part of their sort of the way, their own soft power as corporations, you know, they can, they can help provide some help, some aid on their own. But generally speaking they’re in business to make money. Unlike scientists. Scientists, as a rule, are not doing what they do, they’re doing it because they’re fascinated by their research and they want to help humanity. Corporations can also want to help humanity and do help humanity by essentially commercializing, and it costs huge amounts of money to do so. You know, how much money is spent in failed research in these corporations, lots, billions and billions and billions of dollars. So there is an equity on their behalf as well in supporting the capitalist system. But governments are instituted in order to provide sort of incentives and ideas and ways forward to give leadership to the private and philanthropic sectors. You know, we have Agency for International Development in the United States, and you’ve got international aid agencies from almost every developed country in the world. And now a number of countries which are, you know, mid-level countries, China’s, Saudi Arabia’s the Kuwait’s, these countries can also help in provisions in, to provide assistance and support. Again, this is where, this is where diplomacy can be so useful too, when you have intergovernmental organizations, well, welcome in the NGOs, bring in the philanthropic entities, you know, bring in, you know, the Kuwait organization for development, the UAE or Qatar, they have a fair amount of wealth. I mean, that’s not, as to say they’re not already doing these kinds of things – they do. For example, in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia often provides a lot of medical assistance around the world, and particularly in Islamic countries. And the reason is because their people will come to Mecca, and they can spread disease not only to other pilgrims but to those who are living in Saudi Arabia. So it is in their interest to, you know, to help provision and supply against this kind of disease.
RL: Right. And you also mentioned a bit before about how the World Health Organization was at the center of these multilateral efforts regarding the vaccine. Can you speak a bit about their role specifically, and the work that they’re doing?
RD: You know, WHO and there are other entities like the Pan American Health Organization, which is just north, is headquartered just north of the US Department of State here in Washington. And you know, they have been around for a long time in one form or another. I guess WHO was probably after the Second World War but there were previous commissions and entities and treaties and organizations, out of which the WHO, WHO grew, and its mandate its purpose is to address these kinds of world health calamities, and they develop protocols and procedures and develop opposite, and so it was only natural for them to come up with this concept of the COVID “COVAX” or I’ve forgotten the name of the entity within the WHO that actually is intended to provide, but it needed more funding. It needed more support. And it was right at the height of the pandemic worldwide and in the United States that all of a sudden, our previous administration decided, oh, no, no, we’re gonna cut ties with this organization.
Audio clip of President Donald Trump: I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the Coronavirus.
RD: Again, the last administration was thoroughly anti-multilateral in almost everything that it did. And you know, and it argued that China was actually working inside multilateral organizations to advance its own interests. Well, what is the purpose of diplomacy? It is to advance your own interests. And one of the elements of diplomacy is multilateral diplomacy. So we should be in there working our way in there, too. And the WTO could have spearheaded, perhaps, and less bluntly than the United States, to get into Wuhan to get in deeper into China, you know, had we played a more dynamic diplomatic role during that period instead of walking away from WHO. I am appalled at the behavior of the United States in particular for its many failures over this period, and the many unnecessary deaths and human suffering and economic displacement that has occurred throughout the world. A different approach by the United States and other countries too, it could have made a heck of a difference. And I hope, you know, somewhere along the line, we learn from this and prepare ourselves much better for it. Because again, the incidence of death, the “RO,” or whatever, and so forth, were relatively not as bad as it could have been. It could have been a lot worse. You could have had 2% deaths as we had in the, in the Spanish Flu of 1918. When certain elements of the last administration tried to refer to the COVID-19 as the China flu, I think back to the Spanish flu, and a number of epidemiologist historians have suggested that the real origin of the Spanish flu 1918 was the United States. Essentially doughboys brought it to Europe, from places like Kansas where they had been living with, it was a harsh winter, and they had been living together with their cattle, their pigs. And anyway, so how would we have felt if this were called the, you know, the USA flu, something like that, that ended up killing between 50 and 100 million people. The need was to identify the disease and to collaborate scientifically in order to address using time-honored public health ways to clamp down on the disease. And the Chinese have actually been incredibly successful in their own country in limiting that. Other countries like Korea and Taiwan have also similarly done extremely well in that regard. Anyway, so I didn’t exactly follow the COVID-19 development of vaccines. I was, like many throughout the world, delighted when I learned that we had them. And I think that, that the Biden administration came into office, it started a program of inoculations that made a lot of sense. But political ideological resistance has been, has contaminated that, and led to a lot of loss of life. Just, just incredible. Historians will look back on this period with great dismay and wonder how, in the world, did we get things so wrong for such a country that provides the best medical care in the world? Yes, it’s a fractured system. But we do have very, very bright people, dedicated people, and we have almost an unlimited supply of funding for this kind of thing.
RL: Yeah, it’s really unfortunate – and even more so unfortunate because it was preventable, but just such a terrible tragedy. But on top of that, now we have this problem arising with variants combined with the low vaccination rates, compared to what our goals are. And that’s making everything just way worse, so to say. And so there’s this possibility that we’re just always going to be trying to keep up and running behind the virus, and we’re never going to be able to catch up with it fully. Can you speak on your opinions on that, your viewpoints of, you know, how that’s gonna turn out in the long run?
RD: Yeah, obviously, I use the expression that many people do: I’m not a scientist, and I can’t tell. And I think that, but the viruses do replicate. And as they replicate, they can change, and they can get worse or they can get less harmful. And I listened to commenaterists suggests that it couldn’t become eventually like the regular yearly influenza that that can be addressed by, you know, this a strain can be addressed in your annual flu shot, or it could even be as mild as a cold, or it could come back and be more virulent still. And who knows, we might end up giving vaccinations to children so they can go to school and, and vaccinating the entire population. Much like, you know, our elderly, to whom we don’t know who it will affect most going forward either. But, you know, older people like myself, we get shingles shots, we get pneumonia shots, in order to essentially lessen the impact if we contract a disease, or to prevent it altogether. But yes, it is still out there. There is a reservoir of this and there are many other potential pandemics out there too. And those are related to the environmental despoliation that is occurring, habitat loss and so forth, destruction of rainforests, you know, where are the bats going to go? The reservoirs of disease out there are, should be very worrisome. And again, we need these collaborative efforts, we need great surveillance out there. And we can’t let down our, let down our defenses at all going forward. The naivete of doing so has been amply demonstrated already through these past 20-odd months. Massive dislocations and, and human tragedy and human sufferance and problems just even in the educational system, children who haven’t had, you know, in person schooling in years, and university students as well had the benefit of in-person learning. So I think it’s just this period will be considered a true tragedy and hopefully there will be lessons learned and, and hopefully the lessons learned will be applied not just to the health sector, but also to the environmental sector and the poverty sector and other things. These are all elements, you know, that lead to more grievous problems down the road. I can continue on that, on that. But maybe that’s a subject for another, another discussion.
RL: Yeah, I mean, in terms of this interview, I went through all of my questions and I really appreciate all your insight. Thank you so much for chatting with me about all of this.
RD: You’re very welcome, Ms. Lotfi. Thank you very much.
Producer and Host: Roya Lotfi
Guest: Robert Dry, Adjunct Professor at NYU
Audio clips (in order):
Christina Macfarlane for CNN, January 22 2020.
David Muir for ABC News, March 11 2020.
Anja Kueppers-McKinnon for DW News, January 1 2022.
Kathy Park for NBC News, November 21 2020.
Karl Stefanovic for 9 News Australia, November 30 2020.
Keith Jones for NBC10 Philadelphia, October 28 2021.
President Donald Trump in the White House Briefing Room, September 16 2020.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield testifying on Capitol Hill, September 16 2020.
Nicholas Watt on BBC News, May 5 2021.
President Donald Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 14 2020.
Image Credit: Mike Reddy for Stat