The geopolitics of vaccines

As the world desperately looks for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines have turned from a distant hope to present reality and now to a frenzied, grab-what-youcan free for all. The first signs that vaccine distribution would be plagued with power imbalances came after Pfizer announced successful third phase trials for its mRNA vaccine. Within days, rich countries were placing billions of dollars in orders while poor countries watched helplessly. Now, even rich countries are fighting among themselves over scarce supplies. In the most recent sign that altruism is out the window, it was revealed last week that Canada would be receiving more than a million doses of the Pfizer vaccine through the COVAX program, which was supposed to be an internationally-run system for securing vaccines for poor countries. What does the vaccine fiasco tell us about the state of our world?

Adnan R. Khan: Vaccines are supposed to be about saving lives. But it’s not so simple, is it?

Ilter Turan: Indeed, it isn’t. When this pandemic broke out, those who consider themselves the most advanced societies engaged in efforts to develop some kind of vaccine. It evolved into a test of how advanced a society is. In fact, Turkey also joined the race. Some universities in Turkey are trying to develop an effective vaccine. The ability to develop one is perceived to be an opportunity to show the level of advancement that a society has achieved.

Inevitably, the ability to produce a vaccine became embroiled in political competition between states. The question arose as to whose vaccine was superior. Then some societies, for political reasons that have little relation to the quality of the vaccine, chose one vaccine over another or refused to accept a vaccine. Taiwan, for example, does not take Chinese vaccines; Ukraine will not take the Russian vaccine.

Of course, the competition to produce a vaccine also has an economic dimension. This is an emergency on a global scale; those who are successful in producing a vaccine stand to gain substantial material benefits.
So, you have political and economic competition, but you also have social competition, i.e. who gets to be vaccinated first. And again, here we encounter the material realities of a world organized into nation states: each national government, however well-disposed it may be toward international cooperation, is still under pressure to make sure that its population is vaccinated before others.

But overarching all of this is the fact that this is a global emergency. The key question we should be asking is: In the absence of a global approach to vaccination, can we stop the virus and mitigate its economic damage in a world where people are mobile and where economies are interconnected? It’s a reminder that although the system of globalization has come under serious challenge in recent years, there are areas of international cooperation that need to be intensified.

Adnan R. Khan: The central issue here seems to be cooperation versus competition. In geopolitics and economics, this is the perennial question: How do we find the right balance between cooperation and competition? In the case of the pandemic, would it have been better to centralize the response and work cooperatively rather than engage in this kind of geopolitical competition?

Ilter Turan: It may have been better, but it’s impossible to say for sure. What is obvious is that greater coordination would have helped. Just to give an example: When you develop a vaccine, you need to test it on people before it can become available for wider use. In this particular instance, all producers of the vaccine developed their own testing systems and found different clienteles on which to test the vaccine. They also all developed their own reporting systems. Some systems were accepted while others were rejected, giving rise to questions of which data was reliable and thus which vaccine was effective. This confusion could have been mitigated by following a globalized system of testing and measurement so that we had standardized results that could be measured and made available to everyone. This is how you could have gained trust and convinced more people to get vaccinated.

Adnan R. Khan: Many experts think that the COVID-19 pandemic is only a test run, that there is an even more deadly virus coming at some point in the future. How can we do better to prepare for that?

Ilter Turan: We have to recognize that there are certain areas where international cooperation is of the highest importance. In other matters, it is only natural that countries will compete against each other, but with a phenomenon like a pandemic we should rise above these competitive constraints and recognize that what we need to do is engage in international cooperation such that all of humanity will be the beneficiary.

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