Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/
Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/

Already, the US, China and Europe are sprinting to be the first to find a cure. But that race is beginning to take on an ugly nationalist undertone that fragments the conversation at a time when we most need global solidarity.

Scott Gottlieb, a physician and former commissioner of the US Food & Drug Administration, says the US needs to win the coronavirus “vaccine race”. His reason? Others (read: China) may not be as quick to share it with countries, including those in the developing world, that need it most.

Gottlieb says the first nation to develop a vaccine could have an economic advantage (read: big profits). And he says the first country to the “finish line” will be first to restore its economy and global influence. “America risks being second,” he writes.

The US has lost a massive amount of global trust and influence under its 45th president, but its discovery of a vaccine is unlikely to do anything to change that. In fact, recent actions have given the world more reason to believe the US will prioritise itself at the expense of other nations. Last month reports emerged that the US offered “large sums of money” to get exclusive access to a coronavirus vaccine being developed by a German company.

Earlier this month the US was found to have blocked and rerouted shipments of medical equipment intended for other parts of the world. After discovering that a US firm had produced masks in Singapore and was selling them to other Asian countries, US President Donald Trump warned that the company would have “a hell of a price to pay” if it did not do a better job of “taking care” of the US.

Then he went further, saying: “We need the masks. We don’t want other people getting it.”

More recently, White House adviser Peter Navarro accused China of withholding data about early coronavirus infections because it wants to win the commercial race to create a vaccine. Both China and the US have accused each other of disinformation tactics too.

Gottlieb confidently says that while friendly nations will try to share a successful product — to a point — the US can’t rely on vaccines from elsewhere.

But what reason do the rest of us have to believe that the US will share its vaccine any more than China will? The country that develops a vaccine will inoculate its own population first. How soon will they share it with other countries? And at what price?

Already, control of the technology used in Covid-19 testing has hampered the speedy rollout of more testing kits. And if a vaccine comes from Big Pharma there are risks that prices will be high, and care will be rationed to those who can afford it.

Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a global co-operation of world leaders to share research, treatment and medicines across the world. The US did not take part.

The reality is that the world is 12 to 24 months away from the development of a vaccine. Instead of countries and companies working in silos, global co-operation could shorten that timeframe and direct funds to vaccines that show greater promise. Competition can be healthy if it means successes are shared with the world.

The vaccine race, it appears from this article has no historical parallels. Billions are being spent by governments, charities and pharmaceutical firms with little prospect of success. Progress has been made at extraordinary speed, shortcuts have been taken, and in the end, self-interest is likely to govern its eventual distribution. And beneath it, there’s a singular underlying fear: even if a vaccine does prove effective, there won’t be enough to go around.

An article in Project Syndicate by Joseph Stiglitz, Arjun Jayadev and Achal Prabhala sets out some of the risks that a new vaccine may carry: patents that prevent competition and affordability. It describes the unique global “open science” that applies to the flu vaccine, a process overseen by the WHO that makes information available to countries and companies all over the world.

Meanwhile, China is using the crisis as a way to befriend nations most in need of assistance – and boost its reputation in the process. The BBC describes billionaire Jack Ma’s role in delivering medical equipment around the world and donating to vaccine research, generating plenty of goodwill. This article explores the role Ma has taken on, and whether it will test his relationship with the country’s ruling party.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

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