The troubling rise of vaccine nationalism

“No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket."

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In the early days of the ongoing health crisis there was a sense that everyone had an obligation to protect the people around them, even those they didn’t know. For a time, most of those not heroically engaged in risky essential work, even on the political right, seemed willing to go along with this in the interest of the greater good.

Many of us hoped that this spontaneous solidarity might widen to include the whole globe, especially those poor countries where widespread poverty and suffering were the long ignored norm before the novel coronavirus appeared. Unfortunately, this isn’t how things are turning out.

While self-proclaimed nationalists like the leaders of the United States and Brazil outright rejected the idea that a global pandemic requires a global response and spent much of their energy creating divisions within their own countries over the emerging science of lockdowns and masking, many of those considered liberal or even progressive in richer nations took a quieter but similar approach to the procurement of things like personal protective equipment (PPE) and now, vaccines and expensive treatments.

Here in Canada, our ostensibly liberal government has managed to procure at least 5 doses of vaccine for every citizen (including some from candidates still awaiting approval) from seven different companies, at present the worst example of such hoarding in the world. The numbers are somewhat lower in European allies and slightly more than 2 doses per person in the United States, whose large population and arguably, the ineptitude of its federal government, led to fewer shots available for the country’s citizens.

As reported by the BBC, “…even though rich nations represent just 14% of the world’s population, they have bought up 53% of the most promising vaccines so far, according to data from eight leading vaccine candidates in Phase 3 trials that have done substantial deals with countries worldwide.”

While it’s understandable that politicians, especially in representative democracies where voters might hold them accountable if roll outs are seen as too slow, would want to reserve vaccines for their own populations, it’s both shortsighted and cruel to put richer countries, most of whom have been able to provide for their citizens throughout the crisis, at the front of the line for the shots.

For its part, Canada’s government has said it might make excess doses available to other countries after ensuring that they’re distributed as widely as possible to its citizens.

As the health policy manager for the NGO Oxfam recently explained, “No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket. But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 for years to come.”

One reason why vaccine hoarding could prove to be short sighted is that the virus that causes COVID-19 has mutated several times that we know of already, meaning there is no guarantee that a new variant resistant to the vaccines might be spawned in places without access if much of the world remains without immunity for too long.

Speculation like this aside, as a spokesperson for Gavi (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), which is partnered with the World Health Organization in Covax, told Yasmeen Serhan of the Atlantic earlier this month, “A collective response … doesn’t just make moral sense—it makes scientific sense. If rich countries monopolize vaccines at the outset, it will take us a lot longer, and many more people will die, than if we distribute on a global, equitable basis.”

Terrible things often happen for what seem like mundane reasons. In the case of vaccine nationalism, stringent laws in terms of intellectual property (IP) are still being applied in an unprecedented crisis and the profits of pharmaceutical companies are being protected by rich countries at the possible expense of equitable public health outcomes.

In an earlier parallel to this, although the manufacture and distribution of cheap generic drugs has increased over the last few years, for decades, a million people died a year from AIDS in Africa in the name of copyright protection, an ongoing pandemic that’s never really been called what it is.

The legal trappings around IP protections are in many ways contrary to how science (and oddly enough, most art) works, not actually spurring progress but in many cases bringing it to a halt. If scientists need to avoid certain areas of research due to their ownership, simple logic dictates that promising avenues of inquiry might be avoided in the name of minimizing the legal risks. In the case of medical science, this can be a matter of life and death for large numbers of people.

Most of those who actually create life saving medical advances like the new mRNA vaccines being heralded as a way out of our current circumstance are salaried employees who don’t share in the profits derived from their labor. In terms of the approved Pfizer and Moderna inoculations that will provide windfalls for these companies, the basic research that made them possible was funded by American taxpayers.

As revealed by Scientific American in November, work by a virologist, Dr. Barney Graham, “…and others at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Department and federally funded academic laboratories has been the essential ingredient in the rapid development of vaccines in response to COVID-19. The government has poured an additional $10.5 billion into vaccine companies since the pandemic began to accelerate the delivery of their products.”

As an aside, although most of the press have been focused on the miracle represented by vaccines, a number of powerful at risk people who refused to follow the most basic health recommendations fell ill and quickly recovered. They include Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, who received what appear to be effective but prohibitively expensive therapeutics while thousands of their fellow citizens succumb to the disease each day. The outgoing president even promised to make these treatments available to all before seeming to forget about the health crisis altogether.

As much as it’s revealed the weaknesses inherent in the neoliberal free market system that we’ve always been told is the only rational economic model to follow, the novel coronavirus has also shown how unsustainable a culture based on selfishness is in a crisis. Close to home, we see this most clearly in the large crowds who turn out to protest mask wearing as if it’s an infringement on their liberty rather than a minor inconvenience in the name of protecting others.

In terms of vaccine nationalism, it’s long been easy for the political right and center, with most of the western press in tow to turn a blind eye to the AIDS crisis in Africa or the bleeding of countries like Yemen until now, so there’s no reason to believe that the misery produced by a continuing pandemic in these and many other off the radar places will be much of a priority once those in richer countries are able to go back to living the way we did before the crisis.

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