Updated: Jan 14
18 December 2020
Simon Pearson explores the idea of vaccine nationalism and what this means for the global south.
As the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are injected into the willing arms of the British public, we find a new phrase entering the English lexicon: ‘vaccine nationalism’.
In a world where viruses infect people no matter their race or creed, our elected leaders have taken a warped sense of pride in proudly placing the British flag on any vial that looks to be a winner. Regardless that the first out of the test tube was an American and German creation.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doing his morning media rounds on Tuesday last week (like the doctor nobody wants to see), gave the country his best Gwyneth Paltrow on GMTV. Wiping away a tear for old Bill Shakespeare, who was performing his duty for Queen and Boris as one of the first non-trial patients to take the jab. Who will they find next? James Bond? I wouldn’t have put it past CCHQ to locate a Winston Churchill, Esquire!
Vaccine nationalism is the byproduct of Trumpism, wherein President Donald Trump and his ‘operation warp speed’ sought to develop a vaccine to be stuck in the arms of only red-blooded Republican Americans and then, maybe, not so deserving Democrats. That the US needed an ‘operation warp speed’ has more to do with the creaking infrastructure of the American pharmaceutical industry than a brave leap into the future. Mike Davis in his book The Monster Enters, writing on US preparation for a future flu pandemic, describes ‘aging, poorly maintained vaccine facilities’ that are ‘plagued with poor quality control and indifferent management’. That there were only four of these facilities when the last flu pandemic hit, compared to thirty-seven in the 1970s, reveals the scale of the problem.
In the last thirty years, we have had no new classes of antibiotics enter the market, yet antimicrobial resistance continues to be a worldwide threat. We now risk a return to a time when a scratch to a finger could result in death. This existential crisis demonstrates the inadequacies of the capitalist marketplace. R&D for a new antibiotic runs into many millions of dollars, yet for a new antibiotic to be successful it needs to be deployed sparingly, which results in lower profits for the pharmaceutical industry. Capitalism demands profit, so it’s much better to pump farm animals full of antibiotics, boosting pharma profits, and perpetuating the rise of drug-resistant microbes.
That Pfizer never took federal development money probably says more about their desire to hold on to patents and future profits than a strong sense of right or wrong; after all, ‘ethical’ and ‘pharmaceutical company’ rarely appear together in a sentence. Even Oxford University has a secret deal with the pharma giant AstraZeneca!
Heidi Chow, a pharmaceutical campaigner at ‘Global Justice Now’ describes the problem for the majority of the world:
These results are good news, but with so much government funding for this vaccine, it is time Oxford University’s deal with pharma giant AstraZeneca was made public. Individual parts have been leaked to the media, but the deal itself has been kept secret, so we don’t know the legal framework for making the vaccine available to the world.
The pledge not to make a profit during the pandemic is positive, but without AstraZeneca opening the books on their costs and explaining how and when they can declare the end of the pandemic, it could be a mirage of affordable access. We already know they are able to add 20% to the cost of manufacture for nebulous ‘expenses’.(1)
Duke University in North Carolina is a key research centre in the US and has reported on the doses due to be manufactured and those that have been pre-brought (a practice common in the pharma world). They estimate that ‘6.4 billion doses of potential vaccine have already been purchased and another 3.2 billion are under option’ and yes, you guessed correctly who will always be at the front of the queue. Duke’s research found that the ‘vast majority’ of purchased and pre-purchased doses are going to rich countries. Charity, it seems, does begin at home.
In consequence, many on the frontline of a global pandemic are the last to get vital immunisation protection. Amongst these, we find those least able to deal with the disaster, be that due to poor housing (permitting no social distancing), a lack of medical infrastructure (older hospitals, a paucity of beds and poor equipment), or inadequate social welfare provision (in some countries none at all).
It’s not all bad news for those countries that sit outside of the world elite; if a host country was lucky enough to be part of the global pharmaceutical supply chain, they may have been able to negotiate a ‘supply and hold back’ on some of the vaccine for internal use. India which has had over 144,000 deaths, has one of these local manufacturing deals. The country managing to procure ‘more than 2 billion doses, in part by leveraging access to the manufacturing capabilities of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker’. Mexico which has also suffered a high death rate will benefit from manufacturing AstraZeneca products. For those countries in the global south that are not lucky enough to be part of the pharmaceutical supply chain, it is now suggested a role out of the vaccine will not take place before 2022-23.
So, the only real hope for many of the population in the global south is for successful vaccine trials from several different suppliers. After all, the elite in the global north only need so many doses and once their population is vaccinated, they may choose to forego their options on a different manufacturer’s vaccine.
The issue of vaccine nationalism is the same as climate change, in which those countries on the frontline in the global south are ill-equipped to deal with the problem and find themselves last in line when it comes to aid and support, despite needing it the most. It should be obvious that those on the frontline of a pandemic should have access to the best drugs in fighting and containing the spread. If South-East Asia is likely to be a future hot zone, let’s give them the tools and support to deal with an outbreak.
This pandemic was a global human catastrophe and it should have resulted in a linking of arms in solidarity and a fight to find and deliver a cure together. Disaster Capitalism continues to find profit in calamity and always at the expense of surplus humanity.
Rather than celebrate the first doses of a delivered vaccine, our world leaders should have been finding a way to make sure nobody was left behind, no matter their race or creed.
1. AstraZeneca says its Oxford vaccine deal allows it to add up to 20% of manufacturing costs, 24 October 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-astrazeneca-vaccine-idUSKBN27905E
2. A coronavirus vaccine will save more lives if we share it widely, 17 September 2020, https://www.popsci.com/story/health/coronavirus-vaccine-bill-gates-report
3. See sources and breakdown of public funding: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1C2tOFupoVf0vpOY0UYFkbEEBzktBhE-Z7Flr6nDSrhM/edit?usp=sharing
Simon Pearson is an East Midlands political activist and member of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance.