COVID-19: Could ‘Vaccine Nationalism’ Mutate Into Global Cooperation?

A health worker vaccinates a woman.

The Sars-Cov-2 pandemic is taking so much from humanity, but like all extreme situations, it is also a mirror through which the world can see the best and worst of itself. Particularly revealing is the production, and distribution of the vaccines, not least in the attitude towards China.

It may be just a little more than twelve months, but it now seems like another era, since China called on the rest of the world to stand shoulder to shoulder, against humanity’s common enemy that is Covid-19.

China is rarely, if ever mentioned without prefacing any reference, that it is an ‘emerging power.’ No one, it seems, wants to be the first to point out that this may have been true once, but now however, China is a world power. Its capabilities are a little short of awe inspiring. This is particularly evident in the rapid development of the country’s scientific and research base.

In the ideal world, the proficiency of Chinese scientists would have been combined with their equally advanced counterparts in the West, the two sides offering support to colleagues from lesser developed nations. As it is, this perfectly feasible possibility is destined to be dismissed as a romantic, naïve dream.

There is cooperation within the scientific community. Even during the boorish administration of Donal Trump, Chinese and American scientists did work together, but only to a degree. We are left to imagine what might have been, if such cooperation were to be full hearted.

Nonetheless, the achievement of the scientific community has been remarkable, to say the least.

With scientists leading the way, the pharmaceutical industry was mobilised to produce not one, but several viable vaccines in under two years. An extraordinary feat for a process that normally takes a decade or more. Eight to fifteen years on average. Upwards of 900 million doses have now been administered, although most have been in the more advanced, richer nations.

Kicking it all off, was the Chinese scientific community, which sequenced the virus’s genome, quickly sharing it with the rest of the world. And they did not rest on these laurels, continuing to work, seemingly at breakneck speed, to produce their own vaccine.

Two years down the line, with their own stunning success in combating the virus, China continues to reiterate the message of humanity together against the virus. A message reinforced by their all powerful head of state, President Xi Jinping.

“The pandemic is yet another reminder that we humanity, rise and fall together with a shared future” he said, at a recent global health summit, “confronted by a pandemic like Covid-19, we must champion the vision of building a global community of health for all, tide over this trying time through solidarity and cooperation, and firmly reject any attempt to politized, label, or stigmatize the virus…”

Even as he prepared those words, he knew, as would his audience when he delivered them, that his plea was for the world to pull away from a direction it had already taken, rather than a warning to avoid embarking on one which if taken, would be to the detriment of the global community.

Xi Jinping’s words were echoed by Carl Bildt, among many other responsibilities, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations. While praising the unprecedented global effort in the fight against the pandemic, especially scientific achievement, he issued a stark warning.

“We, collectively – as governments, businesses, and the international community, are losing our fight, and we are failing in our duty to bring this pandemic under control.”

It is against the background of this failure, that China has focused on its own response against the pandemic, especially in the research and production of vaccines, rather than working in concert with the rest of the world, as it might have preferred.

We rarely hear about China’s vaccines, except when it is to question their efficacy, safety, or even price competitiveness. So much so, that with such a level of often hostile scrutiny, China might have reason to argue it might have the most studied vaccines on the market. They can expect to have any weakness widely, and loudly trumpeted.

And Chinese scientists have been staggeringly industrious.

According to their most senior epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, China is researching, and developing 71 vaccines, against Covid-19, all of which are said to be effective against the new delta variant.

Nine of the vaccines are already in use, with the best known two, produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm pharmaceutical companies, officially approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), for emergency use.

According to China’s National Health Commission, 1.29 billion doses of vaccines had already been administered. This is compared to 3.36 billion doses globally, with just under 930 million fully vaccinated. This year the country has produced 3 billion doses, and says its capacity is 5 billon doses a year. Globally, 11 to 12 billion doses are projected to be produced, but this remains only a projection.

China declared Covid-19 vaccines “a global good” a pledge reiterated by Xi Jinping at the global health summit. Despite accusations that they are using vaccines to extend China’s influence across the world, at a time when so-called Vaccine Nationalism is undermining efforts against the pandemic, the Chinese are making good on their declarations.

To date, 853 million doses of Chinese vaccines have been delivered to 99 countries. Of the 52 million doses pledged for Africa through COVAX, a global initiative for equity in distribution of vaccines, 24 million doses have so far been delivered.

In spite of scepticism about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, unwarranted and tendentious, argues China, SAGE (Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation) has no such concerns.

As with all other vaccines, the group recommends Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines for people above eighteen. Efficacy has been measured at 79%, 51% depending on the severity of infection. Unlike some vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines have the advantage of easy storage at normal refrigeration temperatures.

Sinopharm is also the first vaccine to sport a vial monitor, in the form of a small sticker on the vaccine vials, which changes colour as the vaccine is exposed to heat, alerting health workers to whether it is safe for use.

“It is imperative for us to reject vaccine nationalism and find solutions to issues concerning the production capacity and distribution of vaccines, in order to make vaccines more accessible and affordable in developing countries” Xi Jinping entreated the word, “major vaccine-developing and producing countries need to take up their responsibility to provide more vaccines to developing countries in urgent need, and they also need to support their businesses in joint research and authorized production with other countries having the relevant capacity.”

Coming as it does, when the vaccine nationalism he and others, including the WHO, excoriate is all but rampant, Xi Jinping’s call may seem like shutting the stable doors long after the horse has bolted.

But, with the virus continuing to mutate into ever more contagious variants, there remains a hope that countries, especially the more advanced nations, could be forced into putting aside geopolitical rivalries, and come together to pull resources, as a global community against this common danger.

 




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