Ending the vaccine wars

Hany Ghoraba
Thursday 1 Apr 2021

It is time to put an end to political feuds over the Covid-19 vaccines and to make sure that all the world’s people receive vaccination against the virus

Even the most pessimistic observer would have had a hard time forecasting the dire state of affairs in the world today with regard to containing the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The virus, which first surfaced some 15 months ago, has taken the world by storm in what some have called the 21st-century’s first plague. Undoubtedly, if this virus had surfaced a century ago, it would have decimated a significant portion of the global population, given the lack of medical knowledge then compared to today.

But even so, the Covid-19 virus has already infected over 127 million people worldwide and killed over 2.7 million of them as of 28 March this year. These huge numbers are also rapidly increasing, despite the major medical advances that have been made, along with the precautions, lockdowns and vaccination campaigns that have started recently. 

The virus has not just taken its toll on the health and lives of the global population, but also on the world’s economic welfare. There has never been a year in modern history with Gross Domestic Product reaching the lows that it reached last year worldwide, and the figures look set to be almost as depressed this year.

The lockdowns and the reduced production rates in most countries around the world have contributed to this unfortunate result, which has been affecting the majority of citizens worldwide. Given the current dire state of affairs, the only light at the end of the tunnel has been the news of vaccines that can shield people from the onslaught of the virus. 

But this good news has been met by certain complications as a result of governments vying to control the flow of vaccines in the international markets while prioritising and even monopolising the export of vaccines to keep them in their own markets. The governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and India are among those that have banned or limited the export of such vaccines, leading to criticisms of them worldwide. 

With the UK now out of the European Union, it and the EU are at loggerheads over the flow of one Covid-19 vaccine in particular, namely the one produced by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. The EU has accused the UK of “vaccine nationalism” and of blocking the export of the AstraZeneca vaccine to European countries in a bid to keep it for use on British citizens. That accusation has been fended off by British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab as “unfounded.” 

But the Europeans have still threatened to ban the export of the vaccine to the UK from European sources. Despite the fact that AstraZeneca is a British-Swedish company, it has branches all over the world and does not function simply as a British company. 

The war of words has escalated between the UK and the EU, and some European officials, such as French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian, have accused the UK of “blackmail.” The latter has already declared that it has vaccinated half of its adult population. But the Europeans believe that this cannot be an excuse to block the export of the vaccine so that the UK can complete the vaccination of the rest. 

It is no secret that Britain is one of the most-affected countries in the world in terms of Covid-19 infection, with 4.33 million infections and over 126,563 deaths. The UK is also among the hardest-hit countries compared to the size of its population, so it is hard to blame the UK government for wanting to do what is necessary to end this nightmare. 

At the same time, it is not acceptable for the UK to ban the export of the vaccine to other countries, especially to those who have pending contracts with AstraZeneca, because companies and nations have the duty to honour their contractual obligations. On the other hand, it is a fact that the British authorities secured a more reliable agreement for the supply of the vaccine than the Europeans did. 

At the end of the day, the crisis will not be resolved through unilateral decisions that are blinded by nationalism or self-interest, simply because what goes around comes around. It was not long ago that other countries expedited sending medical supplies and other shipments to Britain to help it combat the pandemic, something that occurred at the height of the first wave of the outbreak when British hospitals and healthcare facilities were caught off guard, resulting in major shortages of medical equipment including masks and other protective gear. 

These initial shortages resulted in mass infections and numbers of deaths not witnessed since World War II. It would be wise for the British authorities to avoid creating a problem with, or blocking vaccines headed for, the EU or others because the crisis is not over yet, and there has been the discovery of new strains of Covid-19 including of a British variant.

AstraZeneca has successfully met its delivery targets for the UK, where the vaccination rate is much higher than it is in the EU. This has created problems and led to accusations from the EU that the British are vaccinating people at a speedy rate and preventing AstraZeneca from distributing a fair share of its vaccine to EU members. This is taking place despite the fact that some of the vaccine is produced in plants in the EU. At the same time, the UK government must be applauded for placing its orders for the AstraZeneca shots earlier than the EU.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has bragged about the “vaccine internationalism” that the EU has adopted as opposed to the UK’s alleged adoption of “vaccine nationalism.” She said the EU had authorised the export of vaccines based on 249 requests to 31 different countries, and she blamed the UK for its stance in the present disagreement. 

The threat of sanctions on the UK is poisoning the air between the two entities, which just saw a political separation last year. But the problem does not just lie there: it could also affect supplies to EU-based companies indirectly, as indicated by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer which is producing its own vaccine in the EU. 

Pfizer, whose vaccine has been used the most throughout the EU so far, has indicated that the EU should not ban the export of Covid-19 shots to the UK because the company needs some vaccine ingredients and raw materials from the UK. Imposing restrictions or bans on the UK could lead to similar retaliatory restrictions from the UK, jeopardising vaccination production in the EU itself. 

Unfortunately, the hard Brexit negotiations that ended with Britain parting from the EU are still casting a dark shadow on the current crisis and the distribution of vaccines. There seems to be a battle for imposing will and flexing political muscle in these hard times when nations should be cooperating to the fullest extent possible in maintaining a balanced flow of vaccines to all countries needing them, especially countries hard hit by the virus. 

Ironically, the opposite policies are being practised by Russia and China, which have been openly exporting their own home-manufactured vaccines. More importantly, they are also exporting them to smaller and economically struggling countries in goodwill gestures, thus increasing their geopolitical influence and bolstering their diplomatic status worldwide. 

This is a lesson that should have been delivered by the Western countries to set an example, but alas that has not been the case. There cannot be and there will not be any victors in the vaccine wars, as everyone will lose from them, and the victims will be ordinary citizens worldwide. Ten of thousands of people are dying every day, while hundreds of thousands of others are infected as a result of the pandemic.

It is high time to put an end to political feuds and to set a proper course of action to get a vaccine delivered to every citizen in the world who needs one. If this is not done, the current nightmare will last even longer.

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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