Vaccine Nationalism in the COVID-19 Age

By Noel Guscott

Since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine nationalism has emerged as a threat to an effective global response. Greg Myre (2020, May 27) wrote that vaccine nationalism refers to "a battle between nations" for total control over potential vaccines. Weintraub, Bitton and Rosenberg (2020, May 22) operationalize vaccine nationalism as such: 'Instead of working together to craft and implement a global strategy, a growing number of countries are taking a “my nation first” approach to developing and distributing potential vaccines or other pharmaceutical treatments.' This issue has even emerged as an area of contention in the digital realm, with the United States and its allies accusing Russian hackers of attempting to steal COVID-19 vaccine data. The competition for a vaccine is fierce, and control over vaccines may represent an economic boon in a time of major economic uncertainty.

But vaccine nationalism is not emerging uniformly. There are historically entrenched alliances re-forming, especially in Europe, representing less vaccine nationalism and more vaccine regionalism. The European Union committed €2.7 billion to fund promising COVID-19 vaccines on behalf of EU member states in response to American efforts to secure exclusive vaccine access. Its proposed 2021 health programme, ‘EU4Health’, has made vaccine provision on behalf of member states one of its three action priorities. As well, select Western European nation-states have  attempted to corner potential vaccines on the market, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands formed the ‘Inclusive Vaccine Alliance’ (IVA) in June 2020 to persuade pharmaceutical companies to make COVID-19 vaccines available to EU member states. The group is open to collaboration with other countries, but these four certainly form the core of this group.

Regardless of the European Union’s calls for a coordinated global effort to produce a vaccine, there are also simultaneous national efforts to secure exclusive vaccine access in Europe. Germany invested hundreds of millions of euros into a drug company developing potential vaccines. Sanofi SA, another pharmaceutical corporation, invested €600 million in France to support vaccine research, development and production in France.

COVID-19 is a global pandemic. And yet, a significant threat to effective prevention and treatment of the virus has been a disjointed global response. Rather than pooling resources and knowledge to overcome a common threat, nation-states are taking an adversarial approach and cornering portions of the pharmaceutical market to control potential vaccines. This has the potential to disrupt crucial access to vulnerable populations around the globe, and prevent the equitable distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. The European Union and its member states appear to be working together thus far, but it is unclear if this fragile solidarity will last as the threat drags on.