IT WAS encouraging to see G7 leaders including France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and the UK’s Boris Johnson all on the same page when it came to COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) vaccines last week. With the US back in the fold of global health cooperation as a member of the 92-country COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) initiative, they all agreed to help distribute doses around the world to start healing a pandemic divide between rich and poor.
But beyond the positive sentiment, there’s a troubling lack of action. The gap is already so wide that just 10 countries account for more than three-quarters of COVID vaccinations, while 130 countries have yet to give a single jab. COVAX is a welcome effort, but its target this year is to cover just 20% of its member countries’ populations, meaning it’s only part of the answer. The World Health Organization has called the lack of cooperation across continents a “catastrophic moral failure.”
The risk is that this failure, left unchecked, will prolong the pandemic and allow geopolitical rivals to fill the void. China and Russia are planting flags globally with their own home-grown vaccines, for cheap or for free, while Europe and North America struggle with manufacturing bottlenecks and coronavirus flare-ups. Despite all the talk of sharing, Western allies have prioritized themselves and threatened export curbs; Canada even resorted to tapping COVAX itself for its own supplies.
Their great-power competitors look positively altruistic as a result. At the European Union’s Eastern border, Serbia has raced ahead of the bloc’s own vaccination program thanks to more than 1 million doses of China’s state-backed Sinopharm jab. In the US’ neighborhood, Russia’s Sputnik V shot, initially dismissed by the West, has made in-roads in Mexico with 24 million doses. In Africa, where COVAX is generating mixed feelings, these vaccines are gaining ground next to Western shots that may be more effective in some cases but are pricier and can be more complicated to transport.
In an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter where medicines come from. Yet vaccines are now a tool of soft power and statecraft, and after a grueling year of this pandemic they’re seen as key for national self-defense and foreign policy. Israel recently agreed to buy hundreds of thousands of doses of Russia’s Sputnik V for Syria as part of a prisoner swap deal, according to the Haaretz newspaper. In Asia, Taiwan’s health minister blamed “external” political pressure for the abrupt scuppering of a vaccine purchase from Germany’s BioNTech SE.
Can the West play this game too? After all, it has collectively pre-ordered enough doses to vaccinate its population several times over. One strategy mooted would be for a “Marshall Plan” of vaccine deliveries across Eastern Europe. The hitch is that ambitious vaccine diplomacy depends on domestic support, and that is where the EU especially falls down, with too few inoculations so far, mixed messages on vaccine efficacy, and many still in lockdown.
Manufacturing knowhow may be a more productive diplomatic route for the US and Europe, at least until they can start seriously sharing doses at scale. Theodore Murphy, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa program, has suggested the EU should help African countries make vaccines themselves. This may take time, but so will providing the jabs directly.
Voluntary technology-transfer deals could be signed with drugmakers that benefited from state backing; they would be made easier with US help. It would be a gesture reminiscent of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin’s refusal to patent polio vaccines during the Cold War.
Vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner once stated that, “The sciences are never at war.” Of course he was lobbying Napoleonic France to release British prisoners at the time. Given Beijing is liberally spraying doses like ammunition, it’s time the West stopped guarding its vaccines like precious rocket fuel. Macron, Merkel, and Johnson should remember nobody is safe until everybody’s safe — and that sharing and collaboration sometimes need a shot in the arm to get going.
With assistance from Elaine He.