Fighting the Fires of a Looming Vaccine War

The world has been clinging to news of vaccine developments as the light at the end of a long pandemic-shaped tunnel. Now, with vaccine blockades threatened by the EU, statements are flying about what vaccines should be going where – and raising questions about cross-border healthcare cooperation.

Vaccine-related communications in Europe turned rather sour last week. The EU’s vaccination numbers – those of the population that have received at least one dose – are trailing behind that of the UK, the first country to approve the use of a Covid vaccine in late 2020. While this timing was used by AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot to explain the delay in provisions for the EU, it was not taken kindly by the bloc. Negotiations deteriorated, with the UK dragged into the fray as EU officials demanded that AstraZeneca’s UK production facilities also be used to meet EU contractual demand. Some of the statements that have been flying include:

  • EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides stating that AstraZeneca’s “first come, first served” logic “may work at the neighbourhood butcher’s but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.”

  • The UK’s Boris Johnson stating “I don’t want to see restrictions on the supply of drugs across borders”, calling it a “commonsensical” approach that the EU could support.

But vaccines aren’t the only issue. Politico revealed that, despite the PM’s comments, the UK has itself placed export restrictions on medicines that can be used to treat symptoms associated with Covid-19. The Government has defended this action, but others argue that export protectionism impedes the inter-national trust that is necessary to combat a global crisis.

What’s more, while Europe is under pressure for trailing behind the UK, US, and Israel, many lower-income nations are having to cope with even smaller supplies. High-income nations have been signing supply deals, and reports suggest that there has been insufficient support of the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Covax scheme designed to promote equitable global vaccine distribution. With warnings of ‘vaccine nationalism’ dating back to mid-2020, and WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warning of a “catastrophic moral failure”, the optics aren’t good for anyone seen to be hoarding at the expense of others.

This may conceivably be brushed off as a passing spell of bad PR by those with access to a plentiful vaccine supply, but it is harder to brush off the economic ramifications of non-equitable vaccine distribution. This was most recently addressed in a letter from the International Chamber of Commerce to EU Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyden regarding potential vaccine export blockades. It warns that many nations internationally are dependent on European production sites for vaccinations, and that limiting these risks generating a knock-on effect on the global economy. Delay developing nations their access to vaccines risks damaging manufacture and supply chains – perhaps securing a faster health recovery in higher-income countries, but not a faster economic one.

In short, there are compelling moral and economic arguments for cross-border cooperation. Acting to protect one’s own is understandable, particularly in crisis- or survival-mode. But in our highly interconnected world – in manufacture and supply, travel, and more – localism and protectionism are double-edged swords. Fail to make or help your allies – particularly in a global crisis – and you risk failing your own people, too.