Beware vaccine nationalism, it’ll impede Africa’s access to coronavirus solutions

Sunday August 02 2020

Professor Francois Venter (left) receives an experimental vaccine for Covid-19 coronavirus at the Respiratory & Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU) at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, on July 14, 2020. PHOTO | FILE


The world is on the cusp of getting a vaccine to contain the spread of the coronavirus – which could kill 40 million people and reduce global economic output by 12.5 trillion by the end of 2021.

With 874,036 cases; 18,498 deaths and 524,557 recoveries by the end of July, and a late peak of infections forecast across the continent, Africa badly needs an effective vaccine.

Out of 177 Covid-19 candidate vaccines by the end of July 2020, 142 are at an early clinical stage of trial, 17 in Phase 1 (small-scale safety human trials), 13 in phase 2 (expanded safety trials), five in phase 3 (large-scale efficacy trials) but none approved for general use.

Even as Africa edges towards its Covid-19 peak, its access to vaccines looks uncertain. This is as a result of what Thomas Bollyky and Chad Bown have popularised as ‘the tragedy of vaccine nationalism’ or ‘my country first’ approaches to Covid-19, now dividing the world into vaccine-haves and vaccine-have-nots spheres (Foreign Affairs, July 27, 2020).

Vaccine development

‘My country first’ approaches undergird the responses of key vaccine manufacturing countries, including Donald Trump’s America, whose officials compare the global allocation of vaccines against Covid-19 to oxygen masks dropping inside a depressurising airplane.


“You put on your own first, and then we want to help others as quickly as possible,” said Peter Marks, who oversaw the initial phases of Washington’s vaccine development.

The metaphor of the airplane as our Covid-19 world and oxygen masks as vaccines may be apt. But vaccine nationalists are missing a critical point: in planes masks are provided to all at the same time, not to the First Class only!

It needs no gainsaying that vaccines prevent infection, enable a large population to be immunised against the disease and reduce the number of individuals vulnerable to the virus, thus stemming its spread.

A Covid-19 vaccine will give a population-wide protection, also known as “herd immunity”, which will benefit everyone, whether vaccinated or not.

However, experts doubt that any of the Covid-19 vaccines will give complete immunity against coronavirus. Such vaccines may not be like those that protect against influenza or common cold – which minimise the risk of getting the disease or experiencing its most acute symptoms or dying from it but hardly entirely check the spread of the virus.

Deadliest pandemic

Be that as it may, Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary-General António Guterres have rightly proclaimed the potential of vaccines to end or contain 21st century’s deadliest pandemic as global public goods that must be made available to all. But international cooperation is needed to slay the hydra of nationalism and make Covid-19 vaccines truly global public goods.

Driving the discourse of anti-Covid-19 vaccines as global public goods is the belief that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Despite this, the risk of hoarding of vaccines, denying low-income countries access, looms even larger. But hoarding is becoming the norm rather than an exception. In June, the Trump regime shocked the world when it took the unilateral action to buy up virtually all the stocks of Remdesivir, one of the first drugs proven to work against the virus, leaving none for the rest of the world for three months.

It has pumped nearly $10 billion into its Operation Warp Speed, an Americans-only programme designed to deliver hundreds of millions of Covid-19 vaccines by January 2021. By the same token, the leadership of the Serum Institute, now spearheading India’s vaccine rush, has declared that any initial vaccine the company produces will go to the country’s 1.3 billion citizens.

Key European Union member states – France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands – have formed the “Inclusive Vaccine Alliance” to jointly negotiate with vaccine developers and producers. This quadruple détente has morphed into a larger EU Commission’s effort to negotiate with manufacturers on behalf of its member states to arrange for advance contracts and to reserve doses of promising candidates.

China has consciously distanced itself from this vaccine nationalism. In May, President Xi told the World Health Assembly that if Beijing succeeds in developing a vaccine, it will share the results with the rest of the world.

Global cooperation in sharing anti-Covid-19 vaccines fairly and equitably is the surest pathway to containing the spread of the virus, forestalling uncalled-for geopolitical conflict and disruptions of supply chain.

In this context, on April 24, 2020, over a dozen countries, health organisations, scientists, businesses, civil society and philanthropists launched the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator with the aim of joining forces to speed up the end of the pandemic by supporting the development and equitable distribution of the tests, treatments and vaccines the world needs to save lives, restoring full societal and economic activity. Although the initiative has attracted $8 billion in pledges, major vaccine-manufacturing states such as the United States and India have snubbed it.

Africa stands to benefit immensely from an enforceable global Covid-19 vaccine trade and investment agreement, which experts like Bollyky and Bown have proposed to neuter vaccine nationalism and ensure rapid, fair and equitable access.

“When the oxygen masks drop in a depressurising plane, they drop at the same time in every part of the plane because time is of the essence, and because that is the best way to ensure the safety of all onboard. The same is true of the global, equitable allocation of safe and effective vaccines against Covid-19,” they argue. Vaccine nationalism is a moral and ethical disgrace. The “my country first” approaches will turn every country into a loser, with no winners.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government adviser and CEO at the Africa Policy Institute.