Say it loud: protectionism is dirty little secret of Covid-19 vaccine rollout success
There is a secret, an unspoken reality, at the heart of the global rollout of vaccines that few seem willing to verbalise or admit.
To put this in context, it is worth looking at the large- or medium-sized countries that have managed to vaccinate more than 20% of their population, to compare them with those that have not.
According to Bloomberg data, and as we all know, there are really only two countries that have managed an effective rollout: the UK has administered well over 40 vaccines per 100 citizens, while the US is not far behind.
And what of those that have not managed to do this? Naturally, they are a disparate bunch, comprising every other large- or medium-sized country on Earth.
For this laggardly group, think of EU heavyweights such as Germany and France, as well as paragons of organisation and efficiency such as Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway and Canada – all wealthy, non-aligned nations that are nowhere near double digits of the percentage of the population yet vaccinated with a single jab.
For all the talk about the efficiency of their rollouts, there is also something else that unites the two countries – they are simply the only two vaccine-manufacturing countries in the world that have not exported a single Covid-19 vaccine.
Cut it any way you like, that is the unspoken reality.
How did they manage this? For the UK, according to the Guardian, this came from a funding arrangement between the government and Oxford University.
Oxford was among the first to develop a potential vaccine in May 2020, with the UK government providing essential development funding. That funding arrangement was simply predicated on a legally binding condition that none of the vaccines produced in the UK could leave the country until all its citizens were vaccinated.
To guarantee domestic supply, Oxford was also strong-armed into partnering with the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical business AstraZeneca to produce the vaccines instead of US pharmaceutical company Merck.
As for the US, their vaccination programme has been simply astonishing in its pace and efficiency. US President Joe Biden last week marked the milestone of 100 million shots administered under his presidency, six weeks ahead of schedule. The US has now put 145 million doses into arms, or around twice as many as the more populous European Union.
How have they guaranteed supply? According to Bloomberg, they did not even need a vaccine-export ban, or any contractual arrangement with vaccine suppliers. Rather, the then president Donald Trump and now Biden used a 70-year-old law called the Defense Procurement Act, which gives the president power to prioritise American
orders in a time of crisis. To assert this, Trump signed an Executive Order in December 2020 which gave Americans first priority to vaccines made on US territory.
The world has been left in a difficult situation, where even US neighbours Canada and Mexico are looking to the EU to supply vaccines. Quite simply, it is British vaccines for Brits and American vaccines for Americans – and the EU and India must supply everyone else. It is clear in this world that the winners – those countries that can manufacture and not export vaccines – take all. The question is not whether this is fair or not, it is how countries can cope with this protectionist reality.
This has enormous importance for a middle-sized country such as South Africa, which now has three options to ensure supply. First, we could do what Chile and Serbia have done – shop around and start to use vaccines from Russia and China that have not been widely approved. It is notable that the take-up of these vaccines in the countries that make them (Russia and China) has been extremely weak.
Second, we could wait our turn. By late 2021 it is likely that the US and the UK will have vaccinated a majority of their populations, and massive manufacturing capacity will come on stream. But do not expect it to happen anytime soon; there are still a lot of wealthy and substantial countries that will be pushing their way to the front of the queue. It remains to be seen what negotiating the Ramaphosa government has been able to do to ensure South Africa will be there or, at least, thereabouts.
Finally, we could just make South African vaccines for South Africans.
The good news is that South African pharmaceutical company Aspen announced in November last year that it had been contracted to manufacture vaccines in South Africa for US drug giant Johnson & Johnson. The bad news is that “all the vaccines produced will be exported to J&J and will be a part of its global supply inventory”.
We heard recently that Aspen will supply the African Union with 400 million doses, with at least 30 million of those earmarked for South Africa, although the timing of delivery is uncertain.
Once again, the unpalatable reality is clear: everyone on this planet is equal, except some are more equal than others.
The future looks substantially more protectionist than it once did, and South Africa should be ready and willing to play by those rules.
Quite simply, it is British vaccines for Brits and American
vaccines for Americans – and the EU and India must supply everyone else. It is clear in this world that the winners … take all