Access to COVID-19 vaccines is crucial for ending the continued suffering caused by the global pandemic. Transnational challenges demand multilateral solutions – the COVID-19 pandemic, like climate change, has made that fact glaringly clear. However, far from supporting equitable global vaccine distribution, countries continue to undermine it, to the detriment of developing nations, as well as themselves, in a self-defeating phenomenon known as vaccine nationalism.
This protectionist bent, enacted in the name of safeguarding domestic vaccine-centric interests at the expense of collective ones, is almost universal. Since March, the United States, China, South Korea, India, and Germany, among others, have pursued various avenues to protect domestic research, treatments, and medical equipment.
Data paints a clearer picture: 60 percent of the world’s vaccine supply has been reserved for just 15 percent of its population – almost invariably citizens in high-income countries, with recent modeling by The Economist Intelligence Unit predicting that substantive vaccine coverage in more than 85 low-income countries may not be possible until 2023 if current distribution trends persist.
The rationale behind vaccine nationalism seems to make sense. Governments are first and foremost responsible for the well-being of their own citizens, so domestic vaccine procurement and distribution should take precedence over equitable global access, right? Not quite. Data reveals the fact that vaccine nationalism is a moral and practical failure: It’s epidemiologically self-defeating and economically counterproductive. Here’s why:
According to modeling by the Rand Corporation, vaccine nationalism could cost the global economy $1.2 trillion a year in GDP, or about $103 billion a month. The International Chamber of Commerce isn’t as optimistic, attributing a global loss of $9.2 trillion to vaccine nationalism and unequal vaccine access. This pales in comparison to the $25 billion estimated by Oxfam International to supply enough vaccines for low-income countries.
If economic incentives aren’t convincing enough, increased geopolitical leverage may tip the balance: Countries that share vaccines through strategic vaccine diplomacy will come out of the pandemic with stronger regional and international ties, as well as sustained geopolitical influence.
The post-pandemic recovery goes beyond quantitative metrics – there is a clear moral argument for equalizing vaccine distribution around the world. A recent study by Northeastern University finds that proportional vaccine distribution can avert approximately twice as many deaths as a vaccine distribution restricted to high-income countries. This means that ineffective vaccine allocation will lead preventable deaths – a visceral reason for multilateral cooperation that transcends any economic rationale.
Last but not least, public health implications reveal the short-sighted nature of vaccine nationalism: Even if high-income countries manage to vaccinate everyone at home, new virus variants will emerge in less-fortunate countries where COVID-19 will continue to run rampant. This would paradoxically undermine vaccine nationalism’s basic premise by eventually exposing high-income countries to new mutations that the initial vaccine may not respond to. The only way to break this cycle is to combat unequal vaccine distribution through coordinated, multilateral action.
It is therefore evident that a collective, multilateral approach to the vaccine doesn’t just make moral sense – it makes economic, social, and geopolitical sense as well. States in the GCC – particularly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE – are acutely aware of this reality, and have taken substantive steps to reflect their faith in multilateralism.
Saudi strategic intent was made clear early in the pandemic by committing to a $500 million package to support emergency and preparedness response, deploying new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, as well as fulfilling unmet needs for international surveillance and coordination – $150 million was specifically dedicated to GAVI, the global vaccine alliance.
Under Saudi Arabia’s presidency, the Kingdom spurred fellow G20 nations to equalize vaccine distribution through coordinated multilateral action. Top-down multilateral commitment is coupled with innovative altruism from the bottom-up: Gamers Without Borders (GWB), an initiative of Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS), raised more than $1.5 million for GAVI through an online gaming competition last year. More recently, during an online session of the World Economic Forum, Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed al-Jadaan made clear that the Kingdom is in serious talks with vaccine producers to supply low-income countries, including Yemen and various nations in Africa.
Abu Dhabi is following a similar route: The UAE was one of the first countries to collaborate with China and Russia in their vaccine trials – shortly after approving Sinopharm’s vaccine in the UAE, an Emirati flight transported the first shipment of the Chinese vaccine to Egypt.
Dubai also announced the Vaccine Logistics Alliance to facilitate an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine shots across the globe. Launched under the directives of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE's Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, the Dubai Vaccines Logistics Alliance unites the expertise of Emirates airlines, DP World’s global network of ports, the infrastructure of Dubai Airports and the International Humanitarian City to help meet COVAX’s 2021 vaccine distribution objectives. Abu Dhabi’s Hope Consortium was similarly launched in conjunction to handle the logistics of over six billion doses of the vaccine manufactured in cold and ultra-cold conditions this year.
By any measure, making and distributing enough vaccines to protect the world’s 7.8 billion people is a herculean task, but multilateral coordination is imperative. The Kingdom and the UAE have showcased principled moral leadership by extending a helping hand to less fortunate nations – countries around world should follow suit. Vaccination should ideally be accessible to high- and low-income nations alike, allocated by efficacy and clinical need. That can be hard to reconcile with the certain political realities animating the globe’s post-pandemic recovery.
Multilateral avenues for equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution already exist, with COVAX, a global initiative backed by the World Health Organization, acting as a prime example. But while the organization has raised $6 billion so far, the initiative will require an additional $2 billion to hit its 2021 targets. Signatories are also not precluded from striking their own bilateral vaccine deals, paradoxically undermining the initiative’s strategic intent in the process.
Policymakers must therefore internalize and relay the economic, ethical and epidemiological efficacy of equitable vaccine distribution: Direct donations from high-income countries to low-income ones, and enforceable frameworks for vaccine development and distribution led by international forums, could all be invaluable avenues to pursue. Following that understanding with action-oriented leadership will lead the world to a brighter future, and an end to the pandemic – sooner rather than later.