Is vaccine nationalism on the rise?     

Edited By: Gravitas desk WION
New Delhi  Published: Mar 15, 2021, 10:54 PM(IST)

Covid-19 vaccines (representative image). Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

In the West, Sputnik-V was widely condemned. It was declared a quack vaccine but as of today, Sputnik has been approved in Argentina, Belarus, Slovakia, Hungary, Iran and the UAE. Even the European Union is considering emergency use authorisation. How times change

Humans love competition. We love world cups, the Olympics, elections, etc. No matter how dire the situation, we find scope for competition and rivalry. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different. First was the race to lockdown: who would curb the spread of the virus better? Then, it was a stimulus race: who would write the biggest cheque? And when the vaccines came that too became a race: who would achieve herd immunity first?  

Take Russia's Sputnik-V for instance. It was registered in August 2020, months before vaccines were approved in the West and that's how Russia is marketing Sputnik as the first registered vaccine for the coronavirus. Same in the United States when Donald Trump was president. He doubled up as a cheerleader for vaccine makers, it didn't matter what Pfizer or Moderna said, the former US president was making his own deadlines. It was all about prestige. About racing ahead of rivals.

Pandemic or not, geopolitical competition was very much alive and pharma companies were more than willing to oblige. Last year, they got government endorsements. A kind of vaccine nationalism was picking up. 

In the West, Sputnik-V was widely condemned. It was declared a quack vaccine but as of today, Sputnik has been approved in Argentina, Belarus, Slovakia, Hungary, Iran and the UAE. Even the European Union is considering emergency use authorisation. How times change! 

A similar episode played out in India. Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, was granted approval. It was immediately dubbed vaccine nationalism, a case of the Indian government backing an Indian vaccine. Until now, 5.5 million Covaxin doses have been administered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself took it.

The bottom line is, a vaccine is a vaccine. As long as it keeps the virus at bay, it doesn't matter who manufactures it or which country supports it. 

But try telling that to China. Beijing has unveiled a new visa policy, which applies to foreigners entering the mainland from Hong Kong. If you have taken a China-made vaccine, there will be less paperwork. You don't have to take a Covid test or fill out a travel declaration form. 

A China-made vaccine is basically your ticket into mainland China. A couple of issues here. Backing home-grown vaccines isn't a problem, but this is vaccine discrimination. It's like saying China-made jabs are better than Pfizer, or Moderna, or Covaxin, which is not the case. 

China is attempting to boost the acceptability of its vaccines. Citizens, especially in Southeast Asia have business interests in China. They frequently visit the mainland. For them, taking a China-made vaccine might sound appealing. Beijing is leveraging its position as a travel hub to sell its jabs.

China's pharma war extends beyond vaccines. It is driving up the price of Paracetamol in India. Since last year, New Delhi has been pursuing self-sufficiency in the pharma sector. China's response was to drive up the cost of raw material. A 100% jump since November 2020, right in the middle of a public health emergency. 

Countries may have their own reasons to back vaccines but why are pharma giants playing along? We are talking about one of the most despised industries in the world. Managing public opinion is not their strong suit. The pandemic was a chance to redeem themselves but they failed miserably. Pharma companies supplied more than 50% of their doses to just 16% of the world population. They chased money and market domination.

And don't forget, taxpayers contributed to these vaccines. Remember Operation Warp Speed in America? Pharma companies got more than 10 billion dollars of public money but the public has no rights over these jabs. So, let's take a step back and take stock of what's happening. 

Big pharma used our money to develop vaccines and then sold those same vaccines back to us at cost. That's the global pharma industry in a nutshell. 

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