NATIONS ENGAGE IN DANGEROUS HEALTH ARMS RACE
A global competition is underway to defeat the novel coronavirus. More than 140 vaccines are being tested, according to the World Health Organisation. Australian researches are leading several major clinical trials that might help control the spread of the disease.
But in the battle to be the first to find effective protection against COVID-19, nobody wins unless everyone wins. That’s the view of American epidemiologist and CEO of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, Dr Seth Berkley. In an opinion piece Dr Berkley wrote for Fortune Online, he expressed concern that the search for a vaccine has morphed into a geopolitical battle.
… regardless of which vaccines succeed, if we don’t take a more global and multilateral approach, one involving unprecedented collaboration, where countries work together with global health agencies toward COVID-19 vaccines and where the rewards are shared, then ultimately we all stand to lose. Because with infectious disease, no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Dr Berkley is not alone in flagging that a lack of international cooperation is driving nations to race against each other and not the real enemy – the virus. Writing in The New York Times, a team of senior correspondents observed:
China, Europe and the United States have all set off at a sprint to become the first to produce a vaccine. But while there is cooperation on many levels – including among companies that are ordinarily fierce competitors – hanging over the effort is the shadow of a nationalistic approach that could give the winner the chance to favor its own population and potentially gain the upper hand in dealing with the economic and geostrategic fallout from the crisis.
Vaccine nationalism and a “my-country-first” approach to vaccine allocation also trouble Thomas J. Bollyky, Director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He warns that such behaviour creates the potential for a deadly zero-sum game which will have profound and far-reaching consequences.
Without global coordination, countries may bid against one another, driving up the price of vaccines and related materials. Supplies of proven vaccines will be limited initially even in some rich countries, but the greatest suffering will be in low and middle-income countries. Such places will be forced to watch as their wealthier counterparts deplete supplies and will have to wait months (or longer) for their replenishment. In the interim, health-care workers and billions of elderly and other high-risk inhabitants in poorer countries will go unprotected, which will extend the pandemic, increase its death toll, and imperil already fragile health-care systems and economies.
World powers are working at breakneck speed to secure vaccine stocks and score some reputational kudos. But an excess of national pride and one-upmanship are threatening to overwhelm the common good. The jockeying for position and public posturing by nations was the focus of an article in the July 7 edition of POLITICO Magazine.
In China, where a vaccine victory could turn a country that started the virus’ spread into the savior of the world, the virologist and major general leading the country’s vaccine project has been hailed as a “goddess” on social media….
In June … President Emmanuel Macron announced that (French pharma giant) Sanofi would be dramatically ramping up operations in France to put “Sanofi and France at the heart of excellence in the fight … to find a vaccine.” Invoking the “genius of Louis Pasteur,” Marcon (sic) hailed France as “a great vaccine country.” …
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, Britain is celebrating the news that its own Oxford scientists are “sprinting fastest” to develop a vaccine, in the words of an April 27 New York Times article – though the news site Irish Central took pains to point out that the lead scientist is Irish, not English….
And then there’s Trump, who stood in the Rose Garden in May and stated definitively that “America is blessed to have the most brilliant, talented doctors and researchers anywhere in the world. And now we’re combining all of these amazing strengths for the most aggressive vaccine project in history. There’s never been a vaccine project anywhere in history like this.”
Of course, governments aren’t chasing the vaccine trophy just for prestige and scientific accolades. Beyond the hubris, it’s about getting first dibs on any breakthrough drug for the benefit of their own people. Many world leaders are driven by nationalist impulses and the demands of their anxious populations to get a jump-start on eliminating the virus and bringing their economies back to life.
While it’s still uncertain which countries will get the first inoculations, what is clear is that there will not be enough vaccine for quite some time, even with the unprecedented efforts to manufacture billions of doses. A report in The Washington Post noted:
… the nationalistic priorities of individual nations could thwart the strategic imperative to tamp down hot spots wherever they are on the planet – including poor countries that cannot afford the vaccine. The United States in particular could be left in the cold if vaccines developed here as part of a go-it-alone approach turn out to be less effective than those produced in China or Europe. The scenario public health experts fear most is a worldwide fight in which manufacturers sell only to the highest bidders, rich countries try to buy up the supplies, and nations where manufacturers are located hoard vaccines for their own citizens.
While richer nations look set to win the battle to find a COVID-19 vaccine, they will lose the war against the spread of the virus if poorer nations remain unprotected. Just immunising a few populations against a universal threat won’t be sufficient for global trade and travel to resume. Yet there remains a high risk that the most vulnerable will not get the lifesaving interventions that they need.
African nations were pushed to the back of the queue in gaining access to an antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV and they may well suffer the same injustice regarding COVID-19 vaccine delivery. To help prevent history from repeating itself, the United Nations has declared it a “moral imperative” that everyone has access to a “people’s vaccine”.
A press release issued by UNAIDS in May, cited an open letter signed by “140 world leaders, experts and elders”. The letter demands that all vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and available to all people, in all countries free of charge. The letter states:
Now is not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives, or to leave this massive and moral task to market forces. Access to vaccines and treatments as global public goods are in the interests of all humanity. We cannot afford for monopolies, crude competition and near-sighted nationalism to stand in the way.
Like climate change, pandemics are transnational issues that no country can solve alone. Both highlight the need for closer international cooperation and coordinated global action. Yet most nations have acted independently from each other during the pandemic rather than in unison. The world needs to heed the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, Laurie Garett:
“Without equity, pandemic battles will fail.”
PS. To be clear, there is no certainty that a vaccine will be developed in the near term. The fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps and that took four years.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer