The UK, the EU, and the perils of vaccine nationalism

By JAMES BALDWIN



Boris Johnson will be beaming. The United Kingdom’s vaccine programme is off to a flying start. The country has helped inoculate 16.5% of the population at the time of writing, a figure which will undoubtedly be higher by the time this article goes to press, and one which sits only behind Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The vast majority of over 75s have been vaccinated and it has a clear course for hitting a target of vaccinating the Top 4 priority groups by mid-February. This, in stark contrast to the European Union’s vaccine procurement strategy. The mood from Ursula Von der Leyen will be much the opposite to her British counterpart.


Tensions spilled over in the last weeks of January between the EU and AstraZeneca, in which the European Commission accused the pharmaceutical giant of not abiding by their contractual obligations of delivering vaccines. AstraZeneca retorted that the EU had signed their agreements later than countries such as Britain, a true statement, which has subsequently led to supply issues. In addition to this, several EU nations, diplomats, and leaders cast doubt on the Oxford-produced jab itself; the jab is currently banned in some European nations for those over 65, the countries citing a ‘lack of evidence’ that it works. The angry feud climaxed as the EU imposed export controls of European-made vaccines – most significantly, the Pfizer-BioNTech jab – on other rich nations, which involved the EU declaring its intention to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, essentially imposing checks on the fragile border between the Republic and North. After uniting nearly every British and Irish political party against this, the EU aborted this attempt.


Export controls that the EU have imposed may be warranted. Naturally, every country will want to get their own back to normal first, and with the EU falling behind other western nations, it is only natural for their first instincts to be to protect European-made supplies. However, this does seem more politically based against the UK than anything else. Why try to slow down another country’s vaccine programme because of your own troubles?


This being said, it is unlikely the UK will be affected by the EU’s rash decision. Indeed, they have ordered enough doses to vaccinate five times the population. It is a similar picture across the western world. In fact, the EU’s export controls only underlie the much bigger problem at play – vaccine nationalism.


Here is the process where countries focus so much on their own nation that the developing world is nearly entirely ignored. As many countries do not have the money or capacity to research and manufacture their own vaccines, they will rely on the COVAX scheme – a global operation – to ensure they get their supply. It is a positive step that many western countries have joined this scheme, with newly elected President Joe Biden confirming that the USA would now participate. However, vaccine nationalism has meant that COVAX is vastly outnumbered in funds and doses procured by the national schemes of each of the individual countries contributing. COVAX is a start, but it only promises enough doses for 20% of each country’s population. Latest research suggests that much of the developing world will not have widespread inoculation until 2023, or later, compared with the West expecting to have it by the end of this year – and this does include the EU.


This is a grave concern. Take Africa - although it has not been as severely affected by the pandemic as much as Europe, it has nonetheless had to impose lockdowns when outbreaks occur. This has put a stop to the schooling of young Africans and the shutting down of economies. With a lack of vaccine supplies, these countries will be forced to continue shutting down as European countries begin their re-opening, increasing an already staggeringly high global inequality. Africa is meant to be the slowest growing continent this year, despite lockdowns in much of the West for the first quarters. Even then, failure to inoculate people in low-income countries will have an adverse effect on global supply chains, stagnating high-income countries as well. Perhaps the EU should stop moaning about the UK – which has contributed more to COVAX than any other nation – and get to grips with the bigger issue at hand.


It is natural to want to get your country out of lockdown first. I am not suggesting that we sacrifice all of our vaccine supply, and thus our own economy and lives. But more can be done, and Western countries playing politics is not the way to go about this. Vaccine nationalism is dangerous. Even when the UK and EU manage to vaccinate their populations, the pandemic will not be over. No one is safe until everyone is safe.


IMAGE - UNSPLASH.


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