The search for a Covid-19 vaccine is largely framed as a race, in which the aim is to beat other countries in procuring a vaccine, which will presumably go first to its own people. This vaccine nationalism is playing out along well-worn geopolitical fault-lines: Russia and China versus the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The fact that pharmaceutical corporations and national governments will be the legal proprietors of the intellectual ownership over the research and will control vaccine access is never challenged, no matter how unconscionable it is to try to obtain vital scientific and medical data and information, then to hoard it. It's going to affect the way we distribute the vaccine, where the priority of need is over-ruled by greed.
The media depicts the search for the COVID-19 as a global competition in the national interest. Industrial espionage by computer hacking is reported as would spying be in a time of war. The USA is arresting Chinese with military connections as suspects to acquire vaccine secrets. The authorities are using the media to stoke suspicion and fears that foreign powers are endeavouring to steal secrets.
Yet why are we not asking ourselves if we have a common problem why aren't we working together? Why aren't governments and industry cooperating and collaborating without conditions to find a vaccine? Why is not life-saving knowledge being freely shared? Isn't the claim to exclusivity through the imposition of patent protection laws a threat to public health?
Rather than international cooperation to help confront a global pandemic, patriotic fever is being promoted to defend intellectual property rights and preserve corporate monopolies. Instead of vaccine nationalism we need every research laboratory on the planet capable of contributing to this effort doing so and for them to work together with each other. Competition has almost certainly slowed down the progress of vaccine research. If there has been successes, we should know all about them as quickly as possible, and when there has been failures, being aware of these ensures others don’t waste resources on repeating them.
For the sake of humanity there in an obligation to help one another. There is a serious concern that access will be shaped by a nation’s ability to pay the drug manufacturers and purchase the supply of vaccine, depriving the poor around the world of the cure. There is very good reason to worry. During the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, wealthy countries advance-ordered nearly the entire global supply of vaccines, buying virtually all the vaccine companies could manufacture. The exact same policy is now being enacted, leaving poorer countries with limited supplies. There are calls for an equitable distribution of a potential vaccine such as from WHO's Covid-19 vaccines global access (COVAX) and the Gavi alliance (funded by the Gates Foundation and others) but they are imperfect operating model but it is at least better than nothing.
The message being conveyed by governments and the media is one that we are going to have people in our country die if it isn’t "our" vaccine. Yet the reality is the other way around, governments are prepared to let other people around the world die because it is "our" vaccine.