The Vaccine Nationalism Craze Is on the Rise Globally

November 3, 2020

Vaccine nationalism is a threat to global health – it is, for all intents and purposes, an Orwellian global nightmare unfolding.
China, Russia, and the U.S. decline to participate in a global effort to find a COVID-19 vaccine. Illustrated by Onur Askin for Politics Today

Apart from claiming and adversely affecting innumerable lives across the world and nose-diving the global economy, COVID-19 has occasioned a new political dimension in the global politics arena: vaccine nationalism.

It is unfortunate that at a time of a ravaging global pandemic – one that has transcended and traversed national and geographical borders with catastrophic ramifications – the world is also witnessing a global vaccine nationalism craze. Wealthy countries are at the forefront of this vaccine nationalism by branding themselves the embodiments of civility, moral consciousness, and the safe-keepers of human dignity.

On September 5, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, lamented the threat of vaccine nationalism. He warned that “vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it.” Needless to say, vaccine nationalism is an affront to our moral and public health imperatives, and our shared human values.

The WHO COVAX Initiative

Ever since the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, multiple groups of scientists and researchers consolidated their efforts to find a vaccine. These scientists converged at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and began multidisciplinary and multinational research to find a vaccine. Furthermore, since January 30, 2020, CEPI established a global network of laboratories to centralize assessment of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

More crucially, CEPI and the Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance joined the WHO in a global effort to consolidate resources and research to produce vaccines for COVID-19. This WHO-backed effort has been named “COVID-19 Global Access (COVAX)” and aims at the equitable global access to vaccines when they are available. So far, 172 countries have subscribed to the COVAX initiative committing $1.4 billion towards vaccine research and development. COVAX aims to produce two billion doses by 2021 which will be distributed worldwide only after rigorous clinical tests and health regulations.

Interestingly, Russia, the U.S., and China declined to participate in this global effort to find a COVID-19 vaccine. This has dealt a blow to the WHO effort for a global vaccine. Nevertheless, each country has undertaken its own program for seeking a national vaccine for its citizens. Moreover, many western countries, including Canada, the UK, Japan, and the European Union have already agreed with vaccine corporations through government backroom deals to mass-produce and prioritize their respective countries for COVID-19 vaccines. This has created a race and a scramble for vaccines, and has undermined the highly needed global cooperation and solidarity amid a global pandemic.

A health worker, wearing a protective suit as a measure against the coronavirus (COVID-19), works during a process to develop a vaccine in a lab. Anadolu Images

Vaccine Nationalism is a Step in the Wrong Direction

Echoing the Trump administration’s criticism and contempt for global institutions like the United Nations (UN), the International Criminal Court (ICC), and, most recently, the WHO, the U.S. has receded into itself, riding a wave of rancid nationalism and nativism in its internal politics. Hence, the U.S. initiated its own Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to seek COVID-19 vaccines for its own citizens. Moreover, the U.S. committed to buy 100 million doses of vaccines developed by Moderna, a U.S. pharmaceutical company. However, Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine candidate has prompted an antibody response in all clinical trial participants rendering it unfeasible for now.

It is time for governments to suppress their nationalism and “our country comes first” reflexes since COVID-19 is a global threat requiring a global, coordinated effort.

Russia, the other major country that undertook its own national effort to find COVID-19 vaccines, struggles with credibility in terms of its vaccine productions. Ever since Vladimir Putin declared in a televised announcement that Russia has approved the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, there has been nothing to show for its effectiveness and reliability as a vaccine. The Sputnik V vaccine was planned for mass-production in early October. This has not happened. Indeed, Russia has been shady and evasive when it comes to Sputnik V, rendering it just another geopolitical bluff and yet another aspect of vaccine nationalism. Furthermore, the WHO recommended caution in regard to Russia’s vaccine since its clinical trial findings and progress were not disclosed. The bottom line is that Russia hasn’t effectively proven whether the Sputnik V vaccine can treat or protect against COVID-19.

With vaccine nationalism on the rise, wealthy nations are hording crucial and potential vaccines – including their research and development procedures. Moreover, wealthy nations have locked deals with drug manufacturers exacerbating the cynical and amoral rush for vaccines: the U.S. has a deal with Moderna; EU member states have a deal with AstraZeneca; the UK and Canada have deals with GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi. Vaccine nationalism seems to be a healthy competition among wealthy nations; however, COVID-19 is a planetary threat to our intricately interconnected global society. Even if one nation finds a vaccine and immunizes all its citizens, this will not lessen COVID-19 threats to the global health and economy.

A concerted global effort, such as COVAX, can offer a solution to the whole world, not just to a few countries. Let us also remember that a vaccine might not be an all-encompassing solution to COVID-19: while we have vaccines and immunizations against diseases like Polio and Measles, they still linger and are even making a comeback in the U.S. with deadly cases.

Global Cooperation against COVID-19

As of November 3, 2020, more than 47 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 1.2 million lives have been lost – with more infections and testing, these numbers will definitely rise further. Yet, the world has not found a definitive solution for COVID-19 due to political and geopolitical imperatives, and, most recently, due to the effects of misguided vaccine nationalism. Vaccine nationalism is a threat to global health – it is, for all intents and purposes, an Orwellian global nightmare unfolding.

It is time for governments to suppress their nationalism and “our country comes first” reflexes since COVID-19 is a global threat requiring a global, coordinated effort. While it is “healthy” for every country to seek its own solutions in this Hobbesian international order, a single COVID-19 case is a threat to the whole world. Reason and morality should dictate that the only solution for a substantial and long-lasting solution to COVID-19 is a global-reaching effort, predicated on cooperation and solidarity. On the contrary, vaccine nationalism is a step in the wrong direction.

Abdirashid Diriye Kalmoy is a graduate student at Ibn Haldun University, Turkey. His research interests cover politics, ethnic identities, nationalism and postcolonial nation-state formations in the Horn of Africa.