Cross-national accessibility of COVID vaccines – nationalism versus multilateralism
accine nationalism, meanwhile, has its historical precedent. To deal with the H1N1 pandemic in 2009-2010, a small number of developed economies chose to bond with each other on the merit of research and paying capabilities, with a few even hoarding successful vaccines. Developing economies were offered the product only after deployment needs had been met in developed ones, by which time the pandemic had come to an end. There resulted a surplus and waste of vaccines. As such, vaccine nationalism can be a double-edged sword.
COVID-19 is an entirely different challenge, unprecedented in one century. Economies will be tempted to ensure and expand domestic capacities of vaccine production. But a scenario cannot be ruled out whereby curbs are imposed on global movement of materials for vaccine ingredients, packaging, and injection. That will be another form of vaccine nationalism. After all, crossnational flow of vaccine products is a component of international competition in trade and investment, which comes with its share of frictions and conflicts over product branding and extended economic and political interests.
In the real world, public health is a sphere in which geopolitically motivated maneuvering takes place. Procurement of a vaccine, when a product’s nationality becomes a core choice factor, can become yet another manifestation of vaccine nationalism. For a procurement decision to be made without due regard to scientific facts behind pathobiology would be against common sense in therapeutic terms. It might earn some momentary gains in political maneuvering but amount to irresponsibility towards citizens so affected.
According to publicized information, in the Covax Facility, China is not going to receive preferential treatment when it comes to per unit price of participating vaccines, reflecting the fact that its per capita income is in the upper level of middle income economies. But China stands to have an opportunity to function as both a product supplier and purchaser under the platform, especially in the event of domestic product falling short of meeting demand. As a supplier, joining group negotiation can help save time and human resource input that comes with relying on bilateral channels.
A multilateral arrangement for COVID vaccine distribution, meanwhile, should not be viewed as a confrontation with acts of vaccine nationalism. The prevailing COVID-19 challenges are such that spread of the virus pays no regard to an individual’s nationality, nation-state boundaries, or gaps in aggregate or individual capacity to afford a product. The sooner and the more societies reach the stage of herd immunity through effective immunization by vaccination, the greater for realization of hope for trade and travel to restore normalcy among various economies. In this sense, practices of multilateralism in vaccine access and affordability are also in line with protecting an economy’s own public health security.
As a matter of fact, many nations, including members of the European Union, have opted to join multilateral vaccine arrangements, in addition to pursuing bilateral means of product acquisition.
The world’s search for etiological origins of the COVID-19 virus is still under way. Whether or not future demand for a COVID vaccine will evaporate, like that in the wake of the SARS pandemic in 2002-2003, remains an unknown as well.
All in all, the world is witnessing a race between vaccine nationalism and multilateralism. Being part of a multilateral arrangement is one way to prepare for multiple future scenarios.