Australian Outlook

Ending the Vaccine Wars

08 Apr 2021
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
An employee oversees a Sputnik V vaccine production line. pharmaceutical company Biocad, in Saint Petersburg,  Russia. Sourced from IMF Photo/Sergey Ponomarev,

The increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines coupled with the desperation to revert to normalcy has seen vaccine diplomacy turn into vaccine wars with rapid speed. Countries should be encouraged to centralise production and distribution as it is the only way to protect humanity.

A global pandemic requires no less than a world effort to end it. None of us will be safe until everyone is safe.  Global access to coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments for everyone who needs them, anywhere, is the only way out.

These fine words came from the mouth of Ursula von der Leyen, a German mother of seven who, as president of the European Commission, was co-hosting a bold United Nations and European Union initiative to fast-track global cooperation on COVID-19 treatments, vaccines, health systems, and economic recovery.

This call to action had come from the meeting’s co-host, World Health Organization chief Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus. The gathering brought together governments, scientists, businesses, philanthropists, global health organisations, charities, and international institutions. It already had at its disposal US$2.7 billion of the $35 billion necessary to secure the two billion COVID-19 vaccine doses, 245 million treatments, and 500 million tests that are deemed necessary to shorten the pandemic.

Although the ACT Accelerator, as the initiative is rather clumsily known, has achieved some of its aims, a series of events over the last six months has derailed international cooperation, particularly on vaccines. When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the northern hemisphere in the early months of 2020, Dr Ghebreyesus predicted it would take 18 months to develop a vaccine and approve it for manufacture. Few medical scientists disagreed with him. When Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, told journalists mid-year that he expected scientists at Oxford University to produce a vaccine before Christmas, most assumed this to be over-optimistic bluster. Contrary to general expectation, by then not only was the Oxford vaccine undergoing final trials, but both Russia and China already had their own vaccines in use.

At the same time, von der Leyen dealt a blow to the cause of vaccine diplomacy. Her big achievement during the pandemic had been to raise €7.5 billion on the world’s capital markets for a European Recovery Fund. It was the first time the European Union had raised such a substantial sum using its own name as collateral. The money was to be distributed among the 27 member countries for green projects and to rebuild shattered economies.

Von der Leyen, a medical doctor by profession, decided the best and fairest way to get vaccines into the arms of the EU’s 448 million people was to centralise vaccine acquisition, control, and distribution. The result has been an unmitigated disaster, leading to demands from disgruntled groups and various leaders for the president’s resignation. Not only did the European Commission fail to secure adequate supplies, but those that were contracted were not always delivered. When they were, supplies were not fairly distributed. In the larger, high-population European countries, only about 16 percent of adults had been vaccinated by the end of March, compared with just over 50 percent in Britain. Of EU member states, only the Mediterranean island of Malta came anywhere close with 42 percent inoculated. At the bottom of the list were Latvia and Bulgaria with 7 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively.

Not all the blame should be attributed to von der Leyen and her team of hapless bureaucrats, few of whom had experience with procurement or dealing with transnational pharmaceutical companies. Von der Leyen was also heavily distracted by the final Brexit negotiations and clashes within the bloc over how the European Recovery Fund should be spent.

The European Council of Ministers also had strong opinions on which vaccines had the greatest efficacy. The Russians and the Chinese were the first to produce vaccines to scale. In China, frontline health workers were first in line. The Russian vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology was named Sputnik V, evoking memories of October 1957, when the Soviet Union sent the first Earth satellite into orbit. As Sputnik V was being deployed in Russia, President Donald Trump was naming household disinfectant as an antidote to “the Chinese virus” and suggesting it was no more lethal than an annual bout of influenza.

Vaccine diplomacy turned sour in the first quarter of this year, morphing into a serious conflict caused, inevitably, by the imbalance of supplies and allegations of unfair dealing, compounded by lack of trust. The principal combatants were the EU’s von der Leyen and Boris Johnson, both scarred by the final Brexit saga.  Along with minor skirmishes, the main battle was about the supply to the EU of the Oxford vaccine, produced by Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca.

Months before any vaccine was fully tested, Johnson tasked Kate Bingham, for 30 years a successful venture capitalist in the health sector, to secure for Britain a portfolio of safe and effective vaccines against coronavirus. Bingham set up the UK Vaccine Task Force. By the end of March, over 30 million doses had been jabbed into British arms, compared to a total of 72 million in all 27 EU countries.

Being a venture capitalist, Bingham was not afraid to take calculated risks. The biggest was to fast-track and finance the Oxford vaccine through to manufacture and marketing across the world. She calls AstraZeneca “heroes” for signing more deals to supply low-income countries than any other company.

Across the English Channel, French president Emmanuel Macron made spurious and ill-informed remarks about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which coincided, more or less, with the decision by AstraZeneca to defer delivery of supplies booked to ordered by the EU buy some weeks because of production difficulties at its Belgian plant. Macron later retracted his criticism and said he would be very happy to have the AstraZeneca vaccine himself, but the damage was done. Several EU countries followed Germany’s lead in not allowing the AstraZeneca vaccine to be given to anyone over 65 years old. European Commission officials accused Britain of hoarding vaccines and not being prepared to share with neighbours – this came after Johnson was reported as saying “greed is good.” Von der Leyen gained approval for the imposition of an export ban on any vaccines produced within the EU to any country deemed to be treating the bloc unfairly, but she stepped back when Johnson threatened a lawsuit. Her aim had been to stop exports of the Pfizer vaccine to the UK.

What is needed now is a surge in supply. Many countries, particularly those in Africa (South Africa and Kenya come to mind), have almost no vaccines. Under Joe Biden’s leadership, the United States will soon be contributing more to the international pool. The one billion doses to be manufactured by Moderna in India (financed by the US and Japan and distributed by Australia) will be immensely valuable. China and Russia should be encouraged in their vaccine diplomacy and the European Medical Agency should move as fast as possible to allow the production of the Sputnik V vaccine. The three billion doses promised by AstraZeneca this year will go far in protecting humanity.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.