Butterfly Effect: The Next Pandemic Vaccines Might Come From Rwanda - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: The Next Pandemic Vaccines Might Come From Rwanda

Syringes on a white background, and test tubes
SourceImages Shutterstock, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Butterfly Effect: The Next Pandemic Vaccines Might Come From Rwanda

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

The West's vaccine nationalism has sparked a parallel movement for vaccine sovereignty among poorer nations. It could reshape vaccine economics.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Vaccine names can be revealing. When Russia unveiled its COVID-19 vaccine last year before completing full trials, its race to be first was captured in what it called the shot: Sputnik V, named after the Cold War–era space program when Moscow stole an early lead over America.

Today, as countries around the world desperately hunt for vaccine vials, Cuba is readying COVID-19 immunization candidates of its own. One of them is called Soberna — which means “sovereign.”

These names tell the tale of how the global narrative around COVID-19 vaccines has shifted from the ambitions of a handful of vaccine manufacturing nations to the anxiety of much of the planet. The U.S. is now starting talks with the World Trade Organization to explore ways in which it can make vaccine distribution more equitable. But the country that’s home to most major vaccine developers, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, has until recently been reluctant to share its excess vaccines with other nations. At the same time, it has resisted calls to relax patent laws that would allow poorer countries to manufacture cheaper versions of the vaccines on their own. Like the U.S., Europe has also made clear that it will only share vaccines after inoculating the continent’s population.

And India, which has been exporting tens of millions of vaccines to Africa, Brazil and other parts of the developing world, is now changing tack. Faced with a devastating COVID-19 crisis at home, the country has squeezed its vaccine exports, which are now down to a trickle.

All of this is sparking a parallel movement that could upend global vaccine economics. Developing nations, frustrated by the inequity in the way vaccines are being shared, are plotting a future where they will no longer depend as much on others for doses. They want vaccine sovereignty.

By early April, less than 2 percent of COVID-19 vaccine shots administered globally were in Africa, even though the continent is home to more than 15 percent of the world’s population. So the African Union met last month and announced that it would set up five new vaccine manufacturing facilities in different parts of the continent, with the aim of producing 60 percent of Africa’s vaccine needs over the next 20 years. The continent has a tradition of suspicion toward Western drugs and vaccines, rooted in racist and discriminatory testing practices used by pharma giants in Africa in earlier years, which in some cases led to deaths. African-made vaccines could help offset some of the skepticism that currently hobbles the rollout of jabs.

Over in Latin America, Mexico and Argentina are partnering on a new manufacturing coalition that will use their combined strengths to produce vaccines within the region. Cuba is testing five homegrown vaccine candidates, of which two — including Soberna — have entered final Phase 3 trials. Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela are interested in helping manufacture the Cuban vaccines.

This growing demand for vaccine self-reliance is impacting vaccine diplomacy too. China, which has exported the most coronavirus vaccines — 115 million doses by the end of March — recognizes this trend. In January, it promised it would help turn Indonesia into a vaccine-producing hub, even as Beijing continues to supply its doses to the Southeast Asian nation.

Ironically, what we’re seeing with vaccines today mirrors the debate from last year over China’s export dominance more broadly. Then, as global criticism of Beijing was growing, the U.S., Japan, India and others tried to get their companies to move factories from China back home, using a mix of incentives and threats. Now, a year later, the limitations of a different supply chain — involving COVID-19 vaccines — have triggered the move toward vaccine sovereignty.

To be sure, most nations will not be able to set up giant vaccine factories that can make them self-sufficient. If the design of vaccines remains concentrated in the hands of a few pharma giants, as is the case at the moment, patents will continue to keep shots unaffordable for many countries.

But if each region — even if not every country — develops the capacity to meet its vaccine demand through locally manufactured doses, it would make the distribution of shots faster in future pandemics. The force of economics is such that countries that do set up effective local manufacturing units will then be tempted to become the next exporters themselves. India today is already a case in point. Soon, the vaccines of the world might be manufactured in countries that build supply chains and offer low costs of production to pharma firms. Just like your iPhone is likely sourced from China and your Zara dress from Bangladesh, your Moderna or Pfizer vaccine shot might be made in Rwanda, Indonesia or Mexico two decades from now.

That would fundamentally disrupt America’s vaccine manufacturing industry, which at the moment is developing hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 shots every month. Companies would be able to make vaccines at lower prices in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

When that happens, politicians might try to accuse China or Mexico or African nations of stealing American jobs. But the blame would rest squarely with the West and its self-centered shortsightedness, which has forced poorer nations to adapt and build their own vaccine manufacturing capacities. You could call it COVID karma.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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