Vaccine nationalism?

Vaccine nationalism?

Nine months ago I wrote an article for the Journal of Future Studies looking at four alternative post pandemic scenarios. This was also later carried on the SAMI website. Although Brexit muddies the waters a little, it is now clear that at least one,  if not two of the less attractive scenarios is/are playing out with a clamour for vaccines around the world.

GH scenario cross

Orbanisation was a future that saw more barriers being erected, national boundaries would be invoked to protect virus transmission irrespective of interantional agreements such as Schengen. This has transpired with each European government responding to  protect its public health service. Even the UK has now closed its borders to international travel.  Fear of foreign mutations of the virus sadly follows the same xenophobic trajectory as fear of foreign immigrant workers.

Hyper-capitalism was a future that saw the rich get richer while the poor got poorer, and sadly this appears also to be materialisiing due the nature of work. White collar jobs can mostly be done remotely, but blue collar jobs require attendance at a place of work where social distancing is not always possible to a safe degree. We have also seen the western world grab the first batches of vaccine, or pay a premium as Israel has done, leaving the third world at the back of the queue.

Neither of the two more optimistic scenarios seems to be playing out and perhaps this should not be a surprise given the inequalities in wealth around the world. The New Humanity scenario would require health and care workers to be better remunerated to reflect their value to society, and this is not forthcoming despite the evident moral case. The Star Trek scenario would require global co-operation to tackle the pandemic, but we see only vaccine manufacturers competing for market share along with politicians trying to secure the best deal for their respective states.

Vaccine nationalism has led to political dealmaking that does not encourage global co-operation.  While manufacturers struggle to produce sufficient doses, politicians bid for supplies  necessary to innoculate their respective populations on an ongoing basis. While in the West or First world Big Pharma controls vaccine manufacture, both Russia and China have devleoped vaccines also and could use them to exert influence in the third world. Vaccine diplomacy will become a weapon of soft power as a result of a fragmented and unco-ordinated response by world leaders.

Israel’s deal with Pfizer shows what it takes to secure supplies early, pay a premium  for your population to act as an extended drug trial to help the manufacturer learn how to improve their vaccine to combat new mutations that will inevitably emerge.  Early to test and then head of the queue for  vaccine plus. The virus mutates to survive and the more resistance it encounters the faster it will mutate. This cat and mouse game gives every CFO in Big Pharma enormous optimism for future revenue, at least until faced with political pressures from taxation or nationalisation.

Vaccine manufacture is a business, it resides within states who can control distribution, look at how quickly the EU inspectors went into the Astra Zeneca plant in Belgium when they suspected that supplies  promised to the EU were being re-allocated to the UK. Vaccine production for public health is a political football and while national boundaries remain it will remain in play, look at how  quickly the solidarity of the EU collapsed once individual states made different rules on public health. Vaccine nationalism is an unpleasant reality and production is about profit. Astra Zeneca is so far the only manufacturer to price it in line with affordability, but this altruism is costing it dear with the EU.

Science fiction writers often postulate on how the planet would respond to an alien attack, how the human race would co-ordinate its defence. The coronavirus pandemic shows just how disjointed and piecemeal this would be.  Fortunately the mortality rate of Covid 19 is nowhere near that of Ebola, but this is down to luck not prudence. While the utopian New Humanity scenario that relies on social justice is probably a bridge too far, the Star Trek scenario should be achievable but the World Health Organisation is a powerless beast and needs to be given teeth to fight future pathogens.

Written by Garry Honey, SAMI Associate and founder of Chiron Risk 

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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