The tables, since May 2020, have turned. Experts, health and otherwise, are no longer debating over containment strategies, but discussing vaccines. It is amazing to note how the spectrum of international relations and geopolitics, which once focused on defence strategies and resource management among nations, has rendered nukes and tanks useless.
That we underestimated a protein virus is an understatement. It has collapsed years of health system designs. When a scenario of utter helplessness faced the world in March, running into May, the scuttlebutt had it that the solution to COVID-19 lay with the alleged source of the virus, China. Currently, the grapevine carries news of everyone trying their hands at tailor-made vaccines, which will probably define the next world superpower.
But how is world politics playing out in this whole needle and thread race as of now? Who remains the strongest contender and will it be the reason behind the next Cold War between nations? Let’s begin the geopolitical analysis.
As of 7th July 2020, we have 160 vaccines that are currently being tested at various stages of research and development recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). By its sheer expanse, this remains the largest vaccine effort in the history of mankind. However, to understand the real politics behind the development and access of COVID vaccine, there are a few measures taken internationally that ought to be discussed.
The first and foremost is Gavi’s COVAX. Gavi is a public-private global vaccine alliance founded by Melinda and Gates Foundation and based in Geneva, Switzerland. COVAX is a large pool of funds by nearly 150 plus countries as of now, to support all promising vaccine efforts towards COVID-19. COVAX is the biggest insurer to all the participating countries — the vaccine, once developed, will reach in a predetermined prioritised manner to all stakeholders.
Even though the richest countries will have their bilateral relations with manufacturers around the world, COVAX insures them against experiments going horribly wrong. Either way, whenever the magic potion gets created, these countries will get it. Further, COVAX currently recognises nine such vaccine efforts. The risk is divided as every leading manufacturer struggles with trials, production expansion etc.
In April 2020, we witnessed the creation of Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT- Accelerator), a global collaboration to ensure equitable development and access to COVID treatments, tests and vaccines. It is framed by “governments, global health organisations, civil society groups, businesses and philanthropies,” as mentioned by Poonam Khetrapal Singh (regional director, WHO, South East Asia Region) in a recent interview. ACT-Accelerator rests on four basic pillars — diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines and strengthening health systems. And COVAX is a direct result of the third pillar.
We also have most countries in a global rat race to design the solution. China and the USA can be seen going neck to neck — on Twitter, at the WHO conferences, and now with the vaccine. There is Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, which basically pulls in private pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and the military to cut down trial periods for a vaccine, by as much as eight months. For a President who has been severely criticised for mishandling the crisis and underplaying its repercussions, he is definitely into winning the vaccine race.
On the other end, we have China, with Xi Jinping inciting its neighbours and the USA with its scale of research in the territory. However, Jinping has vowed that if China happens to develop the cure, the vaccine will be a “global public good” and accessible to all. But economics defines public good as a commodity or service, provided free of cost and without profit by a government or private organisation. The key features remain the non-rivalrous and non-excludable nature of these goods.
For instance, clean air (a public good) is accessible to me and everyone else (non-excludable) and it doesn’t come to me at your cost (non-rival). However, no matter how any country puts it across at this point, a coveted vaccine like this, by definition, cannot be a ‘public good’. Some parts of the world will suffer at the cost of favouritism and/or bilateral relationships.
From a manufacturing point of view, India remains a strong contender. We manufacture 60-70% of the world’s vaccines on any good day. But here’s the thing — manufacturers aren’t developers. India might be producing impressive quantities, but our research and development department doesn’t occupy a good seat in the world theatre. This also means that even if we manage to manufacture the ultimate solution (pun unintended), it won’t be necessarily owned by us.
The country that discovers and develops the said vaccine holds the rights to its distribution, formula and usage. They also hold the authority to nationalise the same, prioritise their own countrymen, and sell it as and how they deem fit. If it was business as usual, a COVID vaccine might be the biggest negotiator at this point. It could be used as bait to make countries sign trade agreements, bilateral defence allies, and even take revenge. As per some international experts, it’s enough to make some countries give up their nuclear trials.
But with globals being vocal on ethics, is such an extreme scenario possible in this phase of pandemics? Maybe not. However, we do not live in a completely moral world either. So what’s the middle path?
At this junction, we see a few plausible scenarios. Irrespective of the country that is successful in developing the vaccine, that country can choose to:
If consulted, experts would lean towards option 2 and 3. However, with China being aggressive with its international relationships and Trump fighting hard for validation and good press against Biden, it’s hard to predict their behaviour, with protectionism defining most leaders since some years. Hopefully, with the establishment of COVAX, we will not see a repeat of the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, when a large part of the world received access to the vaccine only after the outbreak had effectively subsided.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been called the great equaliser, but perhaps, the vaccine might disrupt this acrylic-painted scenery of an ideal scenario that we can only hope for. The best case scenario for India remains successful trials of the Oxford vaccine, and expansion of our production capacity with immediate effect to accommodate every strata, every state and every warrior.