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The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism
Only Cooperation Can End the Pandemic
Foreign Affairs September/October 2020
By Thomas J. Bollyky and Chad P. Bown
Trump administration officials have compared the global allocation of vaccines against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to oxygen masks dropping inside a depressurizing airplane. “You put on your own first, and then we want to help others as quickly as possible,” Peter Marks, a senior official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who oversaw the initial phases of vaccine development for the U.S. government, said during a panel discussion in June. The major difference, of course, is that airplane oxygen masks do not drop only in first class—which is the equivalent of what will happen when vaccines eventually become available if governments delay providing access to them to people in other countries…
…THE POWER OF FOMO
When the oxygen masks drop in a depressurizing plane, they drop at the same time in every part of the plane because time is of the essence and because that is the best way to ensure the safety of all onboard. The same is true of the global, equitable allocation of safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19.
Vaccine nationalism is not just morally and ethically reprehensible: it is contrary to every country’s economic, strategic, and health interests. If rich, powerful countries choose that path, there will be no winners—ultimately, every country will be a loser. The world is not doomed to learn this the hard way, however. All the necessary tools exist to forge an agreement that would encourage cooperation and limit the appeal of shortsighted “my country first” approaches.
But time is running out: the closer the world gets to the day when the first proven vaccines emerge, the less time there is to set up an equitable, enforceable system for allocating them. As a first step, a coalition of political leaders from countries representing at least 50 percent of global vaccine-manufacturing capacity must get together and instruct their public health officials and trade ministers to get out of their silos and work together. Combining forces, they should hammer out a short-term agreement that articulates the conditions for sharing, including with the legions of poorer, nonmanufacturing countries, and makes clear what would happen to participants who subsequently reneged and undertook vaccine nationalism. Such a step would get the ball rolling and convince even more of the manufacturing countries to sign on. The fear of missing out on vaccine access, in the event their countries’ own vaccine candidates fail, may be what it takes to pressure even today’s most reluctant leaders to cooperate.