Saturday, August 15, 2020

Vaccine Nationalism Again

Russia is not the only country pursuing domestic politics over global cooperation in the fight against coronavirus. To call this vaccine nationalism seems unnecessary since every stage of the coronavirus crisis has been marked by resurgent nationalism; and by the states previously most invested in the idea of an interconnected world recoiling from it, thrashing about in anger when the system no longer seemed to serve their interests. Take for instance Trump’s sudden discovery that despite its immense wealth, the US doesn’t really make drugs (or gowns, or masks, or ventilators) any more.

The WHO last week warned against “vaccine nationalism”, noting that unless countries cooperate, an actually successful vaccine could touch off a worldwide frenzy. Similar to the scramble for PPE gear and testing reagents when governments seized exports, and the US reportedly tried to intercept other nation’s shipments at global ports, demand for vaccine supplies could result in another pitched battle for limited resources.

While some vaccine projects have promised to make the results as cheap and widely available as possible, others are frighteningly marketised.  A financial analyst was positively giddy speculating that the leading US candidate – Moderna’s mRNA vaccine – could end up selling for more than $70 a dose worldwide, a price that would consign the world’s poorest countries to the back of the line, or out of the line altogether.

The WHO’s solution is to ask countries to join its Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) programme, one part of which is dedicated to funding open access research, and buying up stocks of vaccine to ensure equitable distribution. The project recently received $8bn from a group of EU nations, the Gates Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust. A heartening amount, but likely to be swamped by the waves of cash being thrown around by countries trying to go it alone. In the past month the US has inked or began talks for deals with Pfizer ($2bn), GlaxoSmithKline ($2.1bn), Moderna ($1.5bn), and AstraZeneca($1bn) to supply potential vaccines. The UK has signed six such deals, for a combined 340m potential doses, although the pricing isn’t yet known for all of them.

International institutions such as the WHO, which have warned about potential pandemics and created initiatives around vaccine research and distribution and public health preparedness, haven’t been taken seriously or funded at a proper level for years. The groundwork needed for a truly cooperative international response to this crisis should have been laid long ago.

If a vaccine really does mark the end of the crisis, it will be a particularly perverse tragedy if the very nations that have failed up until now manage to turn it into a zero-sum game in which the country with the most money buys the most vaccine – leaving everyone else shut out.

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