The rise of vaccine nationalism

Last week, in a move celebrated by many of those eager to get the UK economy moving again, the UK Government announced it had procured 90 million doses of two potential coronavirus vaccines – 60 million from US biotech company Novavax and 30 million from Belgium’s Janssen Pharmaceutical company. This takes the UK’s stockpile of potential coronavirus vaccines to 340 million, across six possible vaccines.

The UK is not the only country ‘going it alone’ and pre-ordering vaccines for its citizens. The United States has, or is in the process of agreeing, deals totalling over $6billion across a range of vaccines. The EU has also entered several pre-purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers including 300 million doses of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and 300 million doses of the vaccine from French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has, however, urged countries to stop stockpiling, warning against ‘vaccine nationalism’. Instead, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argues, “sharing finite supplies strategically and globally is actually in each country’s national interest”. The interconnected nature of global supply chains means that while some countries are left vaccine-less and therefore continue to struggle to get the pandemic under control, global supply chains will continue to be disrupted, slowing economic recoveries across the world.

The problem with vaccine nationalism is that it means vaccine distribution will depend on countries’ relative purchasing power rather than their need. This prices out developing countries who do not have the resources to compete with the offers made by wealthier countries, nor do they have the resources to waste pre-ordering vaccines that may be unsuccessful. This pushes developing countries to the back of the line, prolonging the pandemic in these countries compared to the rest of the world. Not only will this result in additional deaths in these countries due to infection, but as the rest of the world recovers, these countries will be left behind, risking years of progress designed to reduce poverty and global inequality.

In a bid to counter such actions, the World Health Organisation launched the Access to Tools (ACT) Accelerator which is designed to aid development, production and access to COVID-19 tests and treatments. This includes equal access to vaccines through its COVAX facility which aims to procure two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of next year, mainly for developing and middle-income countries. The ACT project has so far received $8 billion funding from the Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust and EU nations. However, significant funding gaps remain and major powers including the United States, Russia and India have so far declined to participate in the initiative, majorly limiting its effectiveness.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising, as countries across the world are plunged into recession, governments face immense internal pressure to prioritise their own and get their economies, and citizens, moving again. It also matches with the general trends that have been seen so far during the pandemic particularly in the scrabble for PPE and testing kits at the start of the pandemic, as well as the US buying up all the stock of remdesivir in June, one of only two drugs at the time proven to reduce the effects of COVID-19.

Vaccine nationalism is also not new. Very similar actions occurred in the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic with Australia, the first country to find a vaccine, blocking vaccine exports until its own order was fulfilled. Wealthier countries went on to purchase large quantities of the vaccine and it was only after the worst of the pandemic was over that many developing countries were able to access the vaccine.

The rise of vaccine nationalism is therefore to be expected, in times of trouble countries are forced to prioritise, and unsurprisingly they often choose to prioritise their own. However, this does not negate the fact that such actions often do more harm than good, exasperating global equalities and disrupting global supply chains which in the long run may cause significant problems. As such, whilst the WHO’s message that “no-one is safe until everyone is safe” may ring true, it seems unlikely that their advice will be headed.


Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group