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The first real global challenge

How the race for a Covid vaccine is turning into a geopolitical competition

As widely predicted, the race to produce the first Covid-19 vaccine is no longer just a public health issue, but is rapidly turning into a geopolitical war. The vaccine, as well as curbing the health crisis, is also a political and economic resource, as seen by trials on the initial vaccines: on the one hand, manufacturers announced promising results since the very first tests before publishing the outcomes of clinical trials; on the other hand, governments rushed to pre-order doses of the different vaccines without waiting for their full approval. The consequential war to stock up on the vaccine intensified in conjunction with the US presidential elections, while doubts arose as to the vaccines approved by Russia and China, which are still to be comprehensively tested.

This goes beyond simply protecting people’s health. Various experts agree that a vaccine is also crucial to put economies back on track: world leaders know this and are doing everything they can to stockpile hundreds of millions of doses of potential pre-ordered vaccines, taking a bet on the fact that their “horse” will win the race.

For this reason, the vaccines can be considered truly strategic resources, on the same level as military weapons: for States, obtaining the vaccine is a chance to strengthen their geopolitical position and prestige. For example, the United Kingdom has secured up to 30 million doses of the vaccine created by BioNTech and Pfizer (who announced on 9th November 2020 that the joint vaccine has an efficacy rate of over 90% in preventing symptomatic cases of Covid-19), but has simultaneously signed a separate agreement with AstraZeneca for 100 million doses of its vaccine, and a further contract with GSK and Sanofi Pasteur for 60 million doses. AstraZeneca also has a contract with four EU countries – the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy – for the purchase of 400 million doses. The US has signed three agreements: with BioNTech and Pfizer (worth nearly 2 billion dollars) for 600 million doses, with AstraZeneca for 300 million doses, and with Novavax for 100 million doses. Meanwhile, when up against a race for the vaccine of such proportions, least developed countries – and especially developing countries – risk falling to the wayside. 

To prevent this risk, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), in collaboration with the Gavi Alliance and the World Health Organization (WHO), has launched the Covid-19 Global Vaccine Access Facility, known as the Covax Facility. This global risk-sharing mechanism works towards the joint procurement and equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. The goal is to prevent a recurrence of the mad rush to secure the swine flu vaccine, which in 2009 led high-income countries to requisition a large part of stocks, leaving developing countries behind. Several experts have explained that there is no global entity that has both the power and the authority to impose a fair and efficient distribution system. Covax itself acts on a voluntary basis. Moreover, the project has already been criticised by several civil society groups, according to which donor countries themselves will only be able to cover up to 20 percent of their populations without similar agreements being available to funded countries.

All this suggests that the fight against the pandemic will more than likely have significant geopolitical consequences. The first country to overcome the emergency phase will gain competitive and prestigious advantages, cementing relations with countries to which it gives priority in exporting its vaccines and using this leverage to build a position of strength on a geopolitical level. It will be vital to foster multilateral cooperation between countries, as public health interdependence is the only effective response to the pandemic. Finally, in this sense it is important to highlight the new forms of collaboration established between laboratories and research centres in different countries, which inspires hope that countries themselves might follow this example.