If the coronavirus has taught us one thing, it is that you can’t fight a deadly virus alone. If one of us is unsafe, all of us are. This is why the term ‘vaccine nationalism’ is so jarring.
If climate change had finally pushed nations across the world to work together, the coronavirus pandemic is pushing them back into nationalist silos. It became an opportunity to point fingers, mostly at Xi Jinping’s China, of course. But we thought that no matter the Donald Trumps and the Boris Johnsons of the world, a proven coronavirus vaccine will make us realise the importance of globalisation again.
That’s until the phrase ‘vaccine nationalism’ started popping up in the news. It is the justified fear that rich countries will hoard vaccines and prioritise domestic distribution before manufacturers can provide to other countries.
Clearly, science was on the plan to eliminate the virus together — with researchers, doctors, epidemiologists exchanging their findings across the world — but politics wasn’t.
The US, the UK, France, Canada and Russia have already entered into multi-million-dollar agreements with vaccine producers even before the final trial phase is over.
Whose vaccine is it anyway?
The challenge of tackling the pandemic does not end at developing the vaccine. There’s the question of who gets it first.
Take polio, for example. India’s war against polio lasted nearly 66 years until the country was declared polio-free in 2014. The very first polio vaccine was demonstrated in 1950, but it wasn’t until 1964 that the vaccines became available in India.
Arguably, the circumstances and the era were very different. Coronavirus spreads much faster than polio, the disease affects all age groups, research mechanisms are much more refined and the world is more interconnected.
As much as 70 per cent of the world population — that’s about 5.6 billion people — needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, that is when enough people are immune to the disease for the virus to run out of new hosts.
We already have several viable candidates developed by Moderna, Sinopharm, AstraZeneca and India’s own Bharat Biotech, which are all undergoing human trials. Experts across the world say that by the beginning of next year, a vaccine will be ready.
But how do we ensure the poorest nations get an equal dose of vaccinations as the rich, and at the same time?
The World Health Organization has already warned against vaccine nationalism with its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying that joining the WHO’s fair access mechanism called COVAX Global Vaccines Facility would be the ‘fastest way to end the pandemic’.
But the COVAX system has quite a few problems too — for one, no one knows which country may get the more effective vaccine.
The way things stand now, it is apparent that the poorest, most vulnerable countries of the world will have to rely on the charity of the West.
Coronavirus without borders
According to a Bloomberg report, as much as 1.3 billion doses of Covid shots have already been booked by the US, the UK, European Union and Japan. With the UK alone booking as many as five doses per person. These deals are spread across multiple vaccine front-runners with the hope that if one candidate fails, the country will still have access to another.
Seeing the extent of the crisis, and the number of lives this pandemic has cost us, one can’t hold it against a country to secure its own interests before thinking about the rest of the world. As it is, the coronavirus has brought economies to a standstill.
Globalism has seen pushback in the past few years — a sentiment that is reflected in the people who were voted to power. Be it Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Narendra Modi, their politics revolve strongly around nationalism. When it comes to science too.
But the coronavirus has made us realise that it doesn’t care about walls or borders. In a sense, it is a consequence of globalisation. No one was able to prevent the virus from entering their country.
So, can a pandemic that spread due to globalisation be solved if nations work selfishly in independent silos?
In such a scenario, the act of hoarding vaccines can become a crime against humanity, equivalent to hoarding and black-marketing essential goods during war. But let’s get real. The idea of ‘greater good’ in today’s day and age is a difficult concept to sell — especially when political leaders have majoritarian support and nationalism gets you votes.
A game of numbers
Ending the pandemic will be a game of numbers. We don’t yet know if immunity from any Covid-19 vaccine will be lifelong. We do not know if immunity will last even a year. The best strategy, therefore, is to vaccinate as many people as possible over a short span of time — so that the virus runs out of new victims.
According to the report by Airfinity, the world will not be able to produce one billion doses of vaccine before 2022. The world’s largest vaccine manufacturer — Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) — which produces 1.5 billion shots alone annually also said that it will be 2024 before the world is able to produce enough vaccines for everyone.
So, even if a US citizen has been vaccinated by 2021, we do not know if they will remain immune till 2024, by which time they are likely to come in contact with someone who has not yet received the shot. Unless all countries are able to achieve herd immunity, global travel will remain a risk.
Another thing to remember, which experts have repeatedly pointed out, is that the first vaccine may not even be the most effective one. The polio vaccine developed in the 1950s is not the same one that finally became part of the immunisation programme.
India has a task
It is not that India cannot produce enough vaccines for its own use, being, as it is, the ‘pharmacy of the world’. After HIV anti-retrovirals earned India this tag, we now have to live up to it. But one can take a hint from what happened when anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) was dubbed as a Covid-19 ‘game-changer’ by Trump.
India, the largest manufacturer of the low-cost drug, had banned its export when Trump ‘threatened’ retaliation. Although HCQ did not turn out to be the ‘silver bullet’ experts had hoped it would be, the incident is a reminder that developing countries can be arm-twisted into relinquishing their supplies.
The Covid-19 vaccine gives countries the opportunity to come out of their silos, and work together towards emerging out of a global crisis. And India can play a key part. As scholar Rory Horner wrote, “India has the potential to play a key role in overcoming vaccine nationalism because it is the major supplier of medicines to the global south.”
Nationalism is not likely to solve a problem that was brought on to the world due to globalisation, because the success of vaccination programmes depends on it reaching every part of the world.
Views are personal.