Vaccine Enthusiasm Gives Way to Squabbles and Gloom

It’s been a month since the European Union gave its first approval to a Covid-19 vaccine, and enthusiasm has given way to gloom.

The rollout’s fitful start in France has left citizens fuming as tiny Israel and post-Brexit Britain speed ahead. Germany has effectively gone it alone, snapping up more doses to side-step a joint EU deal whose flaws German politicians have pinned on the French. And EU officials, under fire over their handling of the process, have hounded manufacturers and threatened to limit vaccine exports if orders from abroad don’t arrive on time.

With so few vaccines on the market, fear of a supply crunch is top of mind and beggar-thy-neighbor fights seen last year over masks and ventilators are making a comeback. Those who lack doses are ready to play hardball with those who don’t, as shown by the EU’s bid to push AstraZeneca Plc to divert supplies intended for Britain. Vaccine altruism is giving way to vaccine nationalism, with India reportedly eyeing its own export ban, though this was denied by the government.

It’s a depressingly predictable turn of events for Thomas Bollyky, director of global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who for months warned we were headed for just this kind of “me first” bust-up over shots. In a July article in Foreign Affairs co-written with Chad Bown of the Petersen Institute for International Economics — months before the first landmark results from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE’s jab — he predicted a mix of national pride, logistical failures and domestic health pressure would lead to hoarding and retaliatory measures that might delay the pandemic’s end.

“It’s happening,” he tells me, as the world hits an average vaccination rate of roughly 3.57 million doses a day. “Countries are behaving like nationalists, in the way they have historically about trade.”

While Europe, the U.S. and Canada initially seemed spoiled for choice by vaccine hopefuls, there have been delays and failures. That’s making the burden to deliver by definition heavier for the current crop, including those from Pfizer and AstraZeneca. And it risks widening the gap with the developing world’s vaccine supply, already at a disadvantage in terms of buying power, even further.

This has created a “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which rational actors refuse to cooperate with each other even when it’s in their best interests to do so. Rather than balance domestic vaccination priorities with the sharing of doses abroad — which would bring all economies out of the pandemic quicker and protect health-care supplies — the temptation to hoard them is rising. The fact that vaccines are complicated to make and have a long global supply chain makes them very vulnerable to nationalist reprisals along the way. 

That’s the depressing part. But as bad as vaccine nationalism is, there is a clear silver lining: There are things we can do to beat it.

The immediate goal should be to increase vaccine supply, according to Bollyky, expanding existing manufacturing lines and adding production streams to fill the “gap” left by a lack of other approved vaccines. This is already happening, in fits and starts, and drugmakers have pledged to work together more. French company Sanofi, whose own vaccine candidate is delayed, has agreed to fill and package vials of the Pfizer vaccine for EU supply.

More broadly, incentives to cooperate need to be beefed up. Encouraging developments include the reversal of the U.S.’s decision to leave the World Health Organization and its signing up to Covax, a multinational effort to distribute vaccines equitably. The G7 and G20 should also play a role. Understanding the obvious advantage of shared doses and inoculation strategies requires information and trust.

And as ugly as protectionism is, it does have an upside. The more these spats flare up, the more countries will see how interdependent they are in this health emergency. The brewing U.K.-EU spat concerns a vaccine developed in partnership with Oxford University by Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca and manufactured on the continent. There is clearly an incentive for these close trading partners to exit the pandemic roughly synchronously and to keep relations as smooth as possible until then. As blustery as the EU’s threat to limit vaccine exports might be, it’s a reminder to the U.K. that sharing doses might be an expedient response — though obviously not at the expense of Britain’s most vulnerable. It will be in the EU’s interest to return any favors in the future.

The lesson of reciprocity is a valuable one in this phase of Covid-19. Bollyky compares the inequitable rollout of vaccines to the oxygen masks in an airplane emergency dropping only in the first-class cabin. The challenge is finding the incentives that make it in everyone’s interest for them to drop everywhere. Only then can vaccine internationalism beat its less charitable variant.

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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