Butterfly Effect: The Vaccine Arms Race No One Can Win
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
President Trump’s comparison of the vaccine development program with nuclear weapons sets a dangerous template that could hurt the world, including the U.S.
Standing in the White House Rose Garden last Friday, President Donald Trump compared America’s “warp speed” effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine to the country’s mission to build an atomic bomb 80 years ago. “A massive scientific, industrial and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project,” is how Trump described the initiative.
Trump is given to hyperbole, and experts say it’s almost impossible that a vaccine will be ready for use this year, as he has claimed. But Trump’s comparison was no exaggeration. At a time the world is dealing with its biggest public health crisis in decades, governments of major nations — from the United States and China to the United Kingdom and France — are locked in an unseemly arms race for a vaccine. To them, an inoculation that 7.5 billion people are anxiously waiting for is a strategic tool to access first and share with others based on what they can offer in return. But that bitter fight for supremacy could return to haunt even those who do develop the vaccine and gain an early advantage.
Like the Manhattan Project, the ongoing vaccine race is assuming cloak-and-dagger proportions. The FBI has accused China of trying to hack into vaccine research by U.S. groups, an allegation Beijing has denied. The U.S., China and Europe are home to the majority of the candidate vaccines that are at the most advanced stages of clinical trials — Israel and India are among other major nations developing immunization shots.
Earlier this month, when the European Commission held a virtual fundraiser for collaborative research on a coronavirus vaccine, it invited all of these countries to pool their resources. Yet while the initiative collected $8 billion, the U.S. and China — the world’s two largest economies — chose not to add a cent to the common pot. China attended the conclave only through its ambassador to the European Union, while America didn’t even participate.
Since then, France has warned its pharma giant Sanofi against exporting any coronavirus vaccine it develops to the U.S. — the company’s biggest market — before the French population is inoculated. More than 140 current and former world leaders, led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, have in an open letter called on governments and pharmaceutical companies to ensure that a vaccine — whoever develops it first — is made available without patents to people of all countries.
At the World Health Organization’s annual world health assembly, held over videoconference earlier this week, the EU proposed a “voluntary patent pool” under which pharma companies would be requested to waive licenses for a coronavirus vaccine, if they develop one. But the U.S. and the U.K. are pushing back against the proposal. Meanwhile, Trump has threatened that the U.S. will leave the WHO unless the United Nations agency takes a tougher stance against China, where the coronavirus originated.
(U.S. deaths from COVID-19 (red), compared to American losses in modern wars.)
This every-man-for-himself approach breaks dramatically with a collaborative vaccination model built carefully over the past two decades by the WHO, many of the world’s governments, top health charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and major pharma companies. Their alliance, known as Gavi, allowed poorer nations to access critical vaccines at affordable rates while also facilitating entry into those markets for pharma multinationals. This partnership — launched in 2000 — has helped eliminate polio from most of the world, and in recent years has spearheaded efforts to develop the Ebola vaccine and a still-to-be-discovered inoculation against HIV.
By contrast, coronavirus “vaccine nationalism” — as critics are referring to it — could end up creating a scenario where “everyone is going to continue to suffer,” warned former WHO board member Jane Halton on Monday. Here’s how.
If a government insists that a vaccine developed by that country’s researchers is first used only on fellow nationals, it might appear to gain a chance at an earlier economic revival than other nations. But while the vaccine can serve as a strategic asset momentarily, that country will ultimately be able to safely restart travel with other nations only if their populations are immunized too. For private vaccine developers, such government diktats are effectively also market restrictions — if the U.S. refuses to share a vaccine with China or France, or places unreasonable demands, those countries will have no option but to double down on their own alternatives.
Worse still, the mistrust that is deepening every day will ensure the next time we have a pandemic, there’s even less incentive for countries to be transparent with one another, with the collaborative model for a joint fix broken. The Manhattan Project helped the U.S. build the first atomic bomb. But eventually, the chain reaction that triggered left those with the biggest nuclear arsenals building shelters from fear of enemy attacks. No one was safe.
In this new race too, there can be no winners.