The dangers of vaccine nationalism: Marcal Sanmarti discusses the medical geopolitics of the world's Covid-19 response and the limits of multilateralism.

AuthorSanmarti, Marcal
PositionCover story

Probably readers will remember how a 91-year-old woman from England was supposed to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19 back in 9 December 2020. Well, she was not. She was the first person vaccinated by the Pfizer vaccine, but from September 2020 people in China were being injected with trial vaccines. (1) Before that Russia and China had already vaccinated military personal with trial vaccines too. And the first registered vaccine was the Russian Sputnik V on 11 August 2020. Thousands of volunteers started to be vaccinated from then on in Russia. Sputnik V was questioned not just politically but also scientifically from the very beginning by Western media. But they were wrong. Now we can even see Western companies such as AstraZeneca making deals with the Institute Gamaleya, the creators of Sputnik V, to combine both vaccines. (2)

Not just that: Russia is using this scientific achievement politically. Now Russia can flex its diplomatic muscles not just through oil and weapons but also through biomedical technology. Donald Trump went the other way around. He tried to flex US diplomatic and economic muscle in an effort to get an exclusive vaccine deal with a German company. (3) Many people, especially in Germany, became furious, but it is probably the best example of a new type of nationalism that is emerging--vaccine nationalism. It is not exclusive to the United States though. Amnesty International accused Canada of hoarding vaccines, according to one of their reports. The country got enough vaccines to give every Canadian five shots. (4) In contrast Guinea, a country of 12.5 million people in West Africa, just received 25 vaccine units. (5) Yes, you read well: 25! Most manufacturers have prioritised regulatory approval in rich countries where the profits are highest. That means that young and healthy people from rich countries will be vaccinated before health workers and the elderly from developing countries. Vaccine nationalism and its consequences are spreading around the world, just like Covid-19 itself.

Another crude example of vaccine nationalism can be found in the confrontation between the European Union and the United Kingdom for the supply of AstraZeneca jabs. British company AstraZeneca, just like Pfizer a few weeks before, has failed to provide the European Union with the agreed number of vaccines on time. Just 60 per cent of the agreed quantity will be delivered on agreed schedule. But for some reason the European Union is the only one suffering such delays. The European Union does not understand why after billions from Europe being invested in those vaccines, exports would be fulfilled first. In retaliation, the European Union has warned that no vaccines from AstraZeneca produced in the European Union are going to be exported until agreed numbers to the European Union are delivered. (6) This is a dramatic decision with limited real effect, as the European Union is not a main producer of Covid-19 vaccines. The decision was caused by desperation and is already testing the problematic border between the European Union...

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