Covid-19 has proved to be the greatest humanitarian and economic disaster of the century. A reported 2.7 million people have already died from the pathogen. Its recession is estimated to be twice as deep as that associated with the 2008 crash. Ultimately, the only way out of the pandemic is to vaccinate the world. Yet there has been an alarming outbreak of a “my country first” approach to vaccine allocation. In February, the US announced that it would not donate any doses to poor countries until it had a plentiful supply. Fewer than 10 days later, India cracked down on vaccine exports. These are political decisions, as no one doubts either country’s ability to vaccinate their own populations.
That is why the EU’s threat to limit the export of locally produced vaccines is so concerning. Brussels has enough vaccines. Having stumbled, the bloc’s leaders know it looks bad to see doses leaving the EU for Britain, which has already vaccinated half its population. European leaders should realise that only cooperation can end the pandemic. Without worldwide coordination, there will be no way to get jabs to the 8 billion people on the planet. Vaccinating the globe at once has never been done. “But if we can put a rover on Mars,” the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wrote in the Guardian this month, “we can surely produce billions of vaccines and save lives on earth.”
Only a handful of countries have the resources and knowhow to create Covid vaccines from scratch. The US, the EU and, thanks to our research base, the UK, have developed novel drugs. So have China, Russia and India. A trade war over vaccines would lead to a cycle of countries bidding against one another and drive up the price of treatments. Supply chains would also be disrupted as countries hoarded crucial inputs such as raw materials and equipment. The web of global drug manufacturing makes it fragile. A shock could rent it asunder. Britain has ordered 60m doses from the US firm Novavax. What if vaccine nationalism blocked its key component: a natural compound extracted from the Chilean soap bark tree and processed in Sweden?
About 450m vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 5.8 doses for every 100 people. But in the poorest countries, hardly anyone has been vaccinated. Allowing the virus to circulate gives the pathogen time to evolve. If Sars-CoV-2 vaccines are less effective against new strains, more manufacturing capacity will be required, treatments will have to be updated and countries may have to hit higher vaccination rates to reach herd immunity. Reducing new infections by upping global vaccination rates is, ultimately, the only effective strategy for reducing the risk of new variants that are more contagious, deadly, or resistant to current vaccines.
Rich countries must realise that serving only short-term political interests is self-defeating. The WHO’s Covax facility was meant to keep vaccine prices low and dole out doses to countries based on need. But it aims to vaccinate only a fifth of the world’s poorest people this year, and faces a $2bn shortfall even to accomplish that. The US, UK and EU have for months blocked a proposal at the World Trade Organization, put forward by India and South Africa, to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines. It is galling for poor countries to hear Boris Johnson preach the virtues of a liberal trading regime for the UK when he imposes a protectionist one on them.
The rest of the world cannot continue to wait for the lifesaving shots. There is a tried-and-tested solution: during the HIV/Aids crisis, the WTO agreed a licensing model that expanded affordable access to medicines and compensated drug companies. The rich world should be flexible in an emergency. If a global pandemic does not merit such a concession, then what will?