Brazil Is a Bleak Covid Warning for Europe and Britain

The European Union and the U.K.’s spat over Covid-19 vaccine supplies is heating up, with the EU ready to block exports of AstraZeneca Plc’s shots to Britain until its own needs are met. The wrong lessons are being learned amid the scramble to immunize.

As a way to boost Europe’s sluggish vaccine rollout, an export ban is unlikely to be a game-changer: Airfinity data cited by The Guardian suggest it would speed up the bloc’s immunization campaign by about a week. The delay to the U.K.’s own rollout, meanwhile, could last months, handing a win to the coronavirus and making tit-for-tat British trade reprisals likely. This could affect all drugmakers, not just the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca.

Any delay to exiting the pandemic, politically self-inflicted or not, will have ugly consequences. Disputes like the one between the U.K. and EU ignore the obvious: This is a global pandemic and needs a global response if the world is ever to move on. Brazil’s worsening health crisis is a lesson for everyone. Its Covid-19 deaths hit all-time highs this month, with hospitals struggling to cope as vaccine supplies run low. The country has turned to the U.S. for help in getting extra doses as neighboring countries put up barriers, fearful of importing a more contagious and possibly deadlier Amazonian variant.

Thankfully there are signs that the U.S. under Joe Biden — hardly blameless in the race to hoard doses — is starting to think beyond its own borders in terms of sharing vaccines, but the example of the EU and U.K. shows western powers still haven’t fully grasped the problem.  

Brazil Is a Bleak Covid Warning for Europe and Britain

Unequal access to vaccines has a cost for everyone in this pandemic. Prioritizing domestic needs makes sense up to a point, but the advantages of a national-only approach are vulnerable to new variants from elsewhere. And there’s the economic hit to go with the epidemiological one: RAND Europe estimates a $1.2 trillion impact on annual global gross domestic product if only vaccine-producing nations have access to shots.

While some vaccine nationalism is inevitable, its extent is dispiriting when you consider the advantage rich countries have over the developing world. The U.S., U.K. and EU have secured enough preorders to cover their populations several times over. While wealthy nations vaccinated on average one person every second in January and February, the poorest nations haven’t given a single dose.

Brazil Is a Bleak Covid Warning for Europe and Britain

Still, amid the gloom there are glimpses of a more constructive approach from countries gradually expanding ways to share and collaborate across borders, rather than waiting until their people are fully inoculated. The U.S., which has been under fire for its “America First” attitude to vaccine exports (it doesn’t do them) is to send 4 million doses to neighbors Mexico and Canada for the first time.

This is technically a loan, and no doubt reflects the fact that U.S. regulators have yet to approve the AstraZeneca shot, meaning they have excess supply. It’s good news, nonetheless, as is the U.S. plan to increase production of vaccines in partnership with India, Japan and Australia.

The more production there is, the less pressure on governments to carve up vaccine supply chains or attempt to replicate them on home soil in an effort to guarantee domestic supply. It’s also positive that pharma companies are working together on manufacturing, from Novartis and Pfizer to Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson. Vaccine makers expect to make enough shots for 5.7 billion people this year:

Brazil Is a Bleak Covid Warning for Europe and Britain

Ideally, this would just be the start. A new paper by Chad Bown and Thomas Bollyky for the Peterson Institute for International Economics lays out a comprehensive plan for a global vaccine investment and trade agreement. This would better harmonize regulatory agencies, coordinate and subsidize the expansion of manufacturing capacity, and ban participating countries from restricting exports. More transparency would increase trust, similar to the way in which trading partners have managed the risk of hoarding food supplies. 

If the promise of collective action isn’t enough to get countries to change their approach, the spur of geopolitical competition probably will. Russia and China have profited from the West’s strategic hoarding by promoting their own vaccines around the world, especially in developing nations. This explains in part why the U.S. is dabbling in vaccine altruism.

The one silver lining of these supply crises is that they highlight the interdependence of countries. A beggar-thy-neighbor stance on vaccines may please the home crowd, but in the long run it is essential to have the neighbors on your side. The EU, U.K. and AstraZeneca need to settle their differences amicably — whether through sharing existing doses or manufacturing more — and focus on the real enemy: the pandemic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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