The global risk of “vaccine nationalism”

A Covid-19 outbreak in one country is a threat to all. Russian hackers are at it again. This time, allegedly, to steal Covid-19 vaccine and treatment research.

The United Kingdom, along with its American and Canadian counterparts, said it was “95 percent sure” that hackers tied to Russian intelligence tried to probe their drug companies and research groups. US officials told the New York Times that Russia didn’t seem to be sabotaging efforts to find a vaccine. Instead, the Russians wanted to pilfer the research, to help themselves speed up their vaccine development.

Russian officials have denied the charges. Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said the hacking allegations represented a smear campaign “because the Russian vaccine could potentially be the first to the market and it could potentially be the most effective vaccine out there.”

Russia is hardly alone in wanting an effective vaccine, or wanting to be among the first to get it. This is what every country wants: a way out of the coronavirus pandemic. After months of mass gathering bans, of masks, of lockdowns and reopenings, and lockdowns again, a vaccine feels like the only real solution.

And so the global race for a vaccine is on.

That dash is one of desperation — to reopen economies, reduce the strain on health systems, and protect citizens from illness and death. It’s also all happening in a world where multilateral institutions are increasingly politicized, public trust is thinning, and tensions are rising between the world’s two superpowers, China and the United States — which also happen to be among the likeliest candidates to get first dibs on a vaccine.

The geopolitics are deeply intertwined with this competition for a cure. This is increasing fears of “vaccine nationalism,” where the race to discover and distribute a coronavirus vaccine pits countries against each other.

Vaccine nationalism would mean each nation prioritizes its own interests, inside its own borders, rather than cooperating and fighting against a pandemic that respects neither. It’s “America First,” but with everybody doing it — or at least the countries with the means and resources to make sure they can get the first doses.

“The problem of vaccine nationalism could be stated simply: Let’s say the United States should get the vaccine before anyone else in any other country gets any — so that would be vaccine nationalism in its full colors,” Mark L. Rosenberg, president emeritus of the international nonprofit Task Force for Global Health, told me.

There’s no guarantee that the US will get a vaccine first, though it is investing billions in many promising candidates, in the hopes that one or more will work out. It could be China, which currently has at least four vaccines in human trials. Another leading vaccine contender, being developed by Oxford University and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, has multiple investors.

Governments in Europe and around the world are putting money into pharmaceutical companies and other vaccine developers in the hopes of securing doses for their populations.

But not every country has the resources to make those investments, which means the rest of the world could be left on the sidelines. And that will ultimately leave the whole world vulnerable, as outbreaks — and the spread — of the coronavirus will continue. “It’s convincing people that controlling the pandemic is the goal, and not just protecting your own citizens,” said Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, a public–private global health partnership that works to increase access to vaccines in lower-income countries.

There are global efforts to collaborate on a vaccine, including through a mechanism called the COVAX Facility, which seeks to make sure front-line workers and at-risk populations in all countries, rich and poor, get access to any vaccine (more on that in a bit).

These are the realities the world is already grappling with even before a vaccine has been proven safe and effective, mass-produced, and scaled up for distribution. A lot can still go wrong, and there’s still much we don’t know: How long would a vaccine last? How many doses would it require? What would its side effects be? Who gets a vaccine first, if — as is almost certainly going to be the case — there isn’t enough for everybody? Should a healthy young person in the US get the vaccine before, say, a nurse in Bangladesh?

But the rush for a vaccine continues. It’s unfolding against a global backdrop where countries — especially the United States — may be learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic, turning inward and eschewing global cooperation even more. And this might make a vaccine far from the salvation it is hoped to be.

“With the pandemic disease like this, you can’t actually protect your own country’s health if you’re not protecting global health. Without everyone in the world having access to this vaccine, no country is actually safe,” Alexandra Phelan, an assistant professor and member of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, told me.

“This sort of self-interested, nationalistic approach,” she added, is “limited and shortsighted.”

“Vaccine nationalism” would have been hard to avoid in any geopolitical climate

There are more than 198 coronavirus vaccines in development, according to the Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker, 19 of which are in clinical trials. The best-case estimates say a vaccine is possible by the end of the year, or early 2021. This 12- to 18-month timeline is ambitious, easily a record.

There have been some promising results: A vaccine from Chinese researchers, and another from Oxford and AstraZeneca, produced an immune response in patients.

On Twitter, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the development “very positive news.”

“A huge well done to our brilliant, world-leading scientists & researchers at @UniofOxford,” Johnson wrote. “There are no guarantees, we’re not there yet & further trials will be necessary - but this is an important step in the right direction.”

The UK has already purchased 100 million doses of this vaccine, a bet that it will get first dibs in case this vaccine is the one (or at least one of the ones) that works.

Other countries, including the United States, are making similar bets. After the UK, America will get 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine if it proves effective, paying $1.2 billion to the company as part of its “Operation Warp Speed” to accelerate and ramp up production of any coronavirus vaccine. (Though it’s far from the only option the US has invested in.) At least four European Union countries have also signed a deal with AstraZeneca, for 400 million doses.

This is all very nice for the countries that have billions to spend on promising vaccines. Less wealthy countries may also be able to invest, but maybe just in one or two candidates — and if those vaccines don’t pan out, well, they’re out luck. And lower-income countries will likely have to wait, relying instead on the largesse of richer countries and international organizations.