The rise of vaccine nationalism
The author is a Washington correspondentof the JoongAng Ilbo.
In June, the BIO Digital 2020 convention of life science experts in the global pharmaceutical industry was held online. Here, Dr. Peter Marks from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said, “In a sense, it’s an oxygen-mask-on-an-airplane analogy. The oxygen masks are just deployed. You’re going to put on your own first and then help others. We want to help others as quickly as possible.” Due to limited production capacity, countries that developed or monopolized the vaccine would use it first and then help others.
People were not bothered by the analogy too much, because vaccine development was a distant goal at the time. Not just U.S. President Donald Trump, but also Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, mentioned a possible vaccine within the year or early next year. Now that the vaccine has become a real possibility, the oxygen mask analogy is being revisited by experts, with many criticizing it as an inappropriate comparison for three reasons.
First, it is an excuse for actual “vaccine nationalism.” On July 31, President Trump announced a $2.1 billion vaccine contract with a major pharmaceutical company. Once developed, vaccines for 100 million people would be secured. The problem is that there are people who will have to wait until other countries wear their oxygen masks. Who needs vaccines more desperately, a healthy young man in a developed country or a person with underlying diseases in a underdeveloped country? Thomas Bollyky, director of global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that oxygen masks are installed in both first class and economy class, but vaccines are not.
Second, the effect is questionable. Any country would have to open up once Covid-19 is stabilized with a vaccine. But if a neighbor does not have access to the oxygen mask yet, the impact would be reversed.
Thirdly, international politics could be distorted. Countries without vaccines are likely to be in an imbalanced relationship with those with vaccines. It is already happening in the Philippines. On a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not confront China’s claim over the South China Sea if China provides vaccines. Such a deal could happen anywhere in the world again.
What we need now is cooperation among vaccine powers based on humanitarian love. However, the WHO, which should lead the cause, seems incompetent. China, India and the United States did not join Covax, a WHO agency for fair distribution of vaccines. “Vaccine nationalism” is spreading even at this moment, and it may be harder to prevent than Covid-19.