How 'Vaccine Nationalism' Threatens the Global War Against COVID-19

More than 100 vaccine trials are underway as scientists worldwide race to find a weapon to fight the COVID19 coronavirus pandemic. An undertaking of this size and breadth has never been undertaken, which speaks to the unprecedented societal and economic chaos wrought by the outbreak.

It is unclear how long it will be before a vaccine is produced. Experts say the resources diverted into COVID-19 research mean the world could have a solution within 18 months. Some researchers have even said they are hopeful of a vaccine by the start of 2021.

To date, at least 4.9 million people have been infected and 323,000 killed by COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true figure for both is likely much higher, unknown due to a paucity of testing and state-sanctioned efforts to conceal the scale of the disaster.

Despite calls for global cooperation, the pandemic was quickly politicized. An international blame game has developed even as the number of cases and deaths soar.

The race for a vaccine will be colored by these international tensions. All nations with the capabilities are pouring money into research seeking the public health and propaganda boosts that winning the race would bring.

But once found, a vaccine will take time and international cooperation to spread worldwide.

Scott Rosenstein, the director of Eurasia Group's global health group, told Newsweek that many observers are concerned about "the explicit or implicit nationalization of vaccine production."

The global scramble to secure personal protective equipment is a window into what that may look like—nations seizing goods destined for elsewhere, placing restrictions on exports and engaging in bidding wars with competitors.

This happened during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. The Australian government, for example, pressured Australian company CSL to give up 36 million doses of a vaccine that it was manufacturing for export to the U.S.

"The disputes in 2009 didn't really cause that much tension or political fallout in the end, because by the time the vaccine was ready demand had plummeted," Rosenstein explained. "The likelihood that that is the case this time around is much lower."

We have already seen some examples. President Donald Trump offered "large sums of money" to try and secure a German-made virus, according to Die Welt, pressing the CureVac firm to move all distribution to the U.S. and ensure American priority for its planned COVID-19 vaccine.

And last week, French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi came under fire after its CEO suggested that its planned vaccine would be made available to the American market first. The firm's chairman later stepped back and promised fair access for everyone. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned that access for all was "non-negotiable."

"You could see more of that if it looks like one vaccine is performing better than others and the supply is limited," Rosenstein predicted.

This situation is somewhat unavoidable. David Salisbury of Chatham House's global health program told Newsweek that countries will likely have to make commitments before they know the results of the trials. "Otherwise, they will find themselves at the end of the line for those who already have made commitments," he explained.

Countries where vaccines are produced may opt for "taking the cream off the milk" before they allow the product to be exported, said Salisbury, who served as the director of immunization at the U.K.'s Department of Health until 2013.

National rivalries are likely to bleed into vaccine research. Already, Chinese hackers have been accused of trying to steal research from American groups seeking a vaccine. Other nations are likely to leverage their cyber espionage capabilities to do the same.

"Any data that demonstrates promising pathways to new treatments or vaccines would be in high demand," Rosenstein said, as would be any data showing that certain treatments are useless.

"There are efforts to make all of this information publicly available in the name of global cooperation and pandemic response, but for proprietary data and techniques, reluctance to share is high, so the desire to steal it is also high," Rosenstein added.

Possession of a working vaccine offers leverage, and some countries won't want to give it away for free. Some may see the vaccine as a means of achieving other long-held economic and political aims. As Rosenstein explained, "At the least you would see aggressive negotiations for vaccine access getting wrapped up in broader economic discussions around trade and aid."

But, he added, "You could also see quid pro quos around hot button issues." China and the U.S. are currently at odds over the origin of COVID-19. While most experts propose that the virus originated in a Wuhan wildlife market, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have claimed that it escaped from a research lab in the city.

A host of nations have called on China to allow an independent investigation into the origins and course of the pandemic, but Beijing has so far refused—though President Xi Jinping sounded his eventual support for such a probe at this week's World Health Assembly.

If China gets the vaccine first, it could in theory demand that recipients drop demands for an investigation or walk back other criticisms of Beijing's handling of the outbreak.

And if the U.S. is first to the vaccine, the Trump administration might demand political backing as a proviso for receiving the vaccine. The president has already been impeached for seeking a political quid pro quo with Ukraine, and appears to have been emboldened rather than chastened by the experience.

The Trump administration has turned its ire on China and the World Health Organization, accusing the latter of facilitating China's alleged cover up. The president has threatened to cut all U.S. funding for the United Nations body unless it makes "major" reforms within the next month.

Most leaders have urged the international community to rally around the WHO in this time of crisis. The body could be key in helping validate and distribute a vaccine, but if it is sidelined the most vulnerable nations could suffer.

"An already disorganized, every-nation-for-themselves environment would become even more pervasive," Rosenstein said. "Vaccines in short supply would go to the highest bidder."

The repercussions would stretch beyond poorer nations, Rosenstein added. "The point around cooperation for vaccine distribution isn't just about altruism. A pandemic only subsides when transmission is halted globally. The most effective way to do that would likely be to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers and at risk populations first in as many countries as possible."

Only wide distribution of a vaccine and education on its value—to try and overcome pervasive anti-vaccination conspiracy theories—will allow the globalized economy to ramp up again and international travel return to pre-pandemic levels.

But that will be a challenge in itself. Salisbury explained that low-income nations do not have the vaccination infrastructure or traditions of richer countries. "They don't have vaccine programs for older people," he said. "So implementing them, even if they have a vaccine, will be a real hurdle."

"It's not so much when will you get your first dose of a vaccine, it's by which time will you have received enough vaccine for all of the people that you wish to vaccinate?" Salisbury added. "And the two are quite different answers."

China, coronavirus, vaccine, research, nationalism, race, research
This file photo taken on May 14, 2020 shows a researcher at Peking University's Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Genomics conducting tests at their laboratory in Beijing, China. WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts