Vaccine nationalism and global economic recovery

The IMF, WHO, etc., would like trade hurdles to vaccine inputs removed and nations with excess doses to share at least 1 billion doses with those that need them.
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Soumyadip Sinha)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations/Soumyadip Sinha)

Vaccine nationalism and a lack of multilateral coordination is slowing down global economic recovery and prolonging the pandemic. This has become increasingly clear over the past months as nations squabble over vaccine passports and certificates, refuse to endorse common standards for vaccines and therapeutic protocols or avoid sharing data. Some rich countries have dilly-dallied over the IP waiver for Covid vaccines while others have let their excess stockpile go to waste.

Developed nations are now realising that much of their population being vaccinated alone will not protect them. New virus mutations could crop up because of slow vaccination in other nations, and lead to a jump in new cases even in highly vaccinated countries. The virus variant called Delta has resulted in a surge in new cases in the UK, US and Australia, apart from Asia. Now four new variants—Lamda, Eta, Kappa and Iota—have been designated variants of interest.

The IMF fears that there is a real possibility of new variants derailing global economic recovery and wiping out as much as a cumulative $4.5 trillion from the global GDP by 2025 while further widening the gap between rich economies and emerging and underdeveloped countries. The problem is that despite all world leaders recognising that only a concerted multinational action can speed up the vaccination process, there has been little real cooperation.

By mid-2020, when most countries realised the danger the virus posed, the search for an effective vaccine took off across the world. Government laboratories, pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology start-ups joined the race. There was unprecedented cooperation and data sharing initially.

Alas, it was too good to last. As a number of vaccine candidates came closer to the finishing line of Phase 3 clinical trials and regulatory clearances, the differences had started showing. Each country preferred to back vaccine candidates that were being developed by home-grown companies or research laboratories. Rich countries with enough resources started locking up vaccine doses far in excess of their requirements leaving emerging and underdeveloped economies scrambling to find their own solutions.

While the US showed a preference for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both produced by American companies (though the country had also ordered the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines), the EU and the UK initially threw their weight behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine (AstraZeneca was formed by the merger of Astra of Sweden and Zeneca of the UK). China had four home-grown vaccines, while Russia came up with Sputnik V. India had a number of home-grown candidates as well, of which Covaxin (Bharat Biotech and ICMR) was ahead in the race. (Meanwhile, Serum Institute of India also got licenses to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, called Covishield here, and other vaccines such as Johnson & Johnson). There were other countries developing their own vaccines as well.

While the WHO was supposed to play a coordinating role, it was not mandatory to show it full data or get any regulatory approval from it as long as a vaccine was approved by the domestic regulator. Each nation’s regulator also approved vaccines using their own standards. There were no common set of vaccines approved by the majority of the nations.

Thus, while Covaxin was approved and administered in India, Sinovac in China and Sputnik V in Russia, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca in many Western nations, they were not approved in many other countries. India took its time to approve vaccines other than Covaxin and Covishield. Regulators in most countries have approved one or two vaccines but not all that were available.

Similarly, there has been no consensus on the gap between the first and second doses, vaccines for children, booster shots or even therapeutic protocols that were approved across the world. This is perfectly acceptable practice in normal times and in fact helps prevent regulatory capture by multinational drug firms, but in a pandemic, a more coordinated effort could have speeded up things.

Equally, there have been vaccine production hiccups because rich countries often did not have enough manufacturing capacities while many drug companies were reluctant to give up their intellectual properties to countries that had contract manufacturing facilities and could have boosted production.

Vaccine passports/certificates have been another issue. Vaccination in one country does not guarantee unfettered travel to another that has not approved that particular vaccine.

Companies need to share some of the blame. Many have simply delayed giving data to the WHO or share it with regulators in other countries. Meanwhile rich nations have sometimes been slow to send vaccines they don’t need before expiry dates, resulting in millions of doses being wasted.

The IMF, World Bank, WTO and WHO would like 40% of the population of all countries to be vaccinated by the end of 2021. They would like trade hurdles to vaccine inputs removed and countries with excess doses to share at least 1 billion doses with countries that need them.

That seems a tall task because of mutual suspicion, domestic compulsions and pressure from pharmaceutical lobby groups. And that does not portend well for the future.

Prosenjit Datta, Senior business journalist (

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The New Indian Express