The Geopolitics in the Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine

The next phase of this competition is going to be around the development, manufacturing, distribution, and overarching narrative of potential vaccines for the coronavirus.

By Ryan Mitra

The coronavirus pandemic, which showed early signs of its existence and potential for transmission in December 2019, has shaken the entire global order, and the economic and political foundations it is built upon. The virus, now termed COVID-19 was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in late 2019 in the Wuhan region of China. Since then, the world has seen significant economic regression, closure of economic and sovereign borders, and significant loss in multilateral networks that had been on the rise since the end of the Cold War. 

The global outbreak initially seemed to have a semblance of a symmetrical international response, with national lockdowns across the globe, and States pledging and offering medical support, agreeing on closure of international borders, and exemplifying the need for a united effort to curb the spread. But as the virus rapidly enveloped large pockets of populations in almost every State, their internal responses inevitably led to an asymmetry in their perception and ensuing action at the international level. 

The overwhelming geopolitical impact of the virus on the international system can be seen within multilateral networks and branches of institutionalism that were initially established to tackle issues collectively in times of crises. The criticism of the WHO pandering to the Chinese, the pending exit of the United States from said organization and its other behavioral patterns (which will be explored later), and the lack of participation in the international tools accelerator for access to data relating to COVID-19 by States that possess vaccine frontrunners are all indicators of the existing neoliberal, multilateral network succumbing to nationalism, protectionism, and cold, stark realpolitik State behavior. 

It is important to note patterns of State behavior such as China using its train network within its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to repair its tarnished image over the mishandling of the virus, and also using the virus to further strengthen its ‘Health Silk Road’. Conversely, the United States has often acted unilaterally to gain access to resources without consideration for global health, as seen in its mass procurement of the (unsupported) hydroxychloroquine treatment, and its hijacking of shipments of ventilators bound for other countries. These are symptoms of increasing nationalism in international relations that actively place States in a structural realist competition with one another. Structural Realism is based around neo-realist IR theories that visualize the global order as hegemonic which is established based on capabilities and the political will of States.

The next phase of this competition is going to be around the development, manufacturing, distribution, and overarching narrative of potential vaccines for the coronavirus. As the global daily average of positive patients continues to rise, States continue to be desperate for a medical response that will enable them to further limit the impact and transmission of the virus. This desperation has inevitably led to certain countries using their economic and political capabilities to ensure principal access to potential vaccines, and further monopolize control over its distribution and its narratives. 

This article dichotomizes the reality of Vaccine Nationalism and Narrative Wars. The first is the pre-purchase procurement of potential vaccines by high-income States to facilitate inoculation of their population, at the risk of delayed access in other parts of the world. The second is relating to the existing political/economic conflicts between States and the rhetoric regarding the same, and how they may evolve into incorporating a potential COVID vaccine within themselves. 

Vaccine Nationalism

There are two general types of medical responses to an epidemic or pandemic: a preventive response and a therapeutic intervention. A vaccination is a preventive response, and a treatment drug is the latter. As the global order is coming to terms with the reality of COVID-19, the need for an effective vaccine continues to rise daily. And while certain States have repeatedly mentioned that this crisis needs to be collectively addressed, countries like the United States, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom have thus far acted in their own self-interest, at the risk of prolonging the global effects of the pandemic. 

While there have been coordinated efforts to pool the resources and data of various States to tackle the crisis, the COVID-19 tools accelerator included, the United States, Russia, and India have very conspicuously chosen not to participate in the initiative; highlighting their overarching positive attitude towards global vaccination, while actively seeking primary access to the same. 

Furthermore, there have been cases of these States (such as the United States) approaching foreign firms (such as AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish pharmaceutical company) for primary, unilateral access to a developed vaccine, a move that has been condemned by various parties. The United States invested a total of $1.2 billion in AstraZeneca (a company developing a vaccine with the University of Oxford) to obtain at least 300 million doses first, which could be delivered as early as end of this year. This past May, Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company promised to deliver the vaccine to the US first, as it was the principal funder of its COVID-19 vaccine program. This led to a diplomatic stand-off between France and the United States.  

This follows ‘Operation Warp Speed’ by the Trump administration, which aims to deliver 300 million vaccines solely for domestic use by early 2021. Such behavior is not unprecedented. During the onset of H1N1, also known as “swine flu”, wealthier countries entered into pre-purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies, which created a concerning disproportion between available stock of vaccines available globally and the demand in low-income and developing countries. It was estimated that in 2009, during the inception of the outbreak, a best case scenario would see the world having access to 2 billion doses, out of which the US negotiated exclusive access to 600,000.

Narrative Wars

As seen in the case of China, it has repeatedly tried to spin its mishandling of the virus by continuously publicizing its ‘global response’ to the pandemic, primarily in the form of the 5G technology and medical equipment it has made accessible to different countries. But the backlash it has received from other States it has on-going disputes with since 2016 –– namely the United States –– is where these ‘narrative wars’ begin. The stakes are high: whichever country can prove itself to be a bulwark against coronavirus through a universal vaccine will be seen as nothing less than a savior of the global order (and economy). Moving forward, they would have a tremendous amount of goodwill and space to maneuver in both bilateral and multilateral settings. 

This year demonstrated that the inherent filter for diplomatic curtesy and decorum (which ensure the sanctity of bilateral relations) is no longer in place, particularly when the United States and China accused one another of engaging in a global conspiracy to diminish each other’s capabilities. It can be assumed that if China creates a successful vaccine before the US elections, or alternatively, if the Trump administration is voted in for a second term, the US will double down on one of its conspiracy theories. One of them, frequently used by President Trump, is that COVID-19 is allegedly a biological agent artificially created by the Chinese government to further bolster its ‘Health Silk Road’ under the Belt and Road Initiative. This would allegedly align with the current administration’s modus operandi of ‘demonizing’ China for the purpose of both its internal and international politics. 

If current trends on the logistics for international travel continue, documentation pertaining to the coronavirus will be a mandatory requirement for any and all international commute for the foreseeable future. Considering the pending exit of the US from the WHO, this is simply the latest development in the latest brand of US foreign policy, which in the recent past has actively undercut multilateral forums and institutions, thereby eroding the fidelity created amongst States within those forums. There is no guarantee that if a Chinese or a Russian vaccine qualifies as a WHO universal vaccine that the United States or other countries would permit the application of this vaccine within their own sovereign borders at all. In fact, they may require foreign nationals entering their borders to provide separate and specific COVID-19 vaccination certificates that they consider legitimate. 

The lack of participation in an intergovernmental organization that had previously been the critical authority on universal vaccines poses a new set of contemporary issues for all member States. In a fractured world, States may be compelled to ask for a specific brand and type of vaccine that may or may not be in line with the WHO recommendations. Or alternatively, said vaccine may be inaccessible in other countries, which would consequently pose as a bureaucratic and logistical quagmire that officials and travelers across the world will have to navigate. States may even reject indigenous vaccines injected in certain countries, and further require additional inoculation to issue visas and allow physical entry at their border. An early indicator of such behavior can be seen with the United States rejecting Russia’s vaccine, which had been arguably developed on a very short timeline. 

What next?

In the case of the coronavirus, the pitfalls are not solely contained to national variables. The inherent dependency that is closely intertwined with multilateralism and globalization has become a pitfall for the global order facing this pandemic. It is imperative to understand that isolationism and a reverting back to linear bilateralism cannot be the answer to this crisis. 

The nature of the global order will not change during the pandemic. It may do so after, but the response to this pandemic right now must come from what the States have built together over the last 75 years: under the aegis of multilateral forums, from cooperation on data sharing, to a globalized mindset. While WHO’s position as the principal authority around global health is well noted, it finds legitimacy from its member States. This legitimacy can quickly turn fragile if its member States choose to operate outside of it, and not rely on its scientific findings and evidence. 

A WHO-qualified vaccine is largely considered universal, but its politicization, perhaps inevitable once it clears pre-qualification, will hurt its legitimacy, thereby raising doubts about its ‘universality’ in the first place. Indeed, the pandemic initially generated space for cooperation and mutual consideration, allowing States an opportunity to utilize existing tools in contemporary multilateral networks. But over time, these networks have started to thread and tear at their seams, under the pressure of increasingly isolationism and concerning protectionist behavior of governments. 

As epidemics with pandemic-level potential have become increasingly chronic, the COVID-19 crisis appears to fulfill a 2005 prediction by Larry Brilliant, an American epidemiologist. Brilliant had stated that ’90 percent of the epidemiologists in his confidence agreed that there would be a large pandemic—in which 1 billion people would sicken, 165 million would die, and the global economy would lose $1-3 trillion—within two generations.’ 

The swine flu outbreak, Ebola, and the previous SARS and MERS outbreaks are symptomatic evidence of mankind’s predatory behavior of exploiting the environment. Within this reality, vaccine nationalism has impeded a unified response to the greatest global health crisis of this century. The geopolitical implications of such State behavior will not limit themselves to simply vaccine production and access but may severely influence the way States interact with one another in the international system. Furthermore, vaccines as a tool may be incorporated as a leverage point to achieve foreign policy objectives in international matters not relating to COVID-19 altogether. 

Ryan Mitra is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs (2020-2022). Instagram: @ryan.mitra

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash, find it here.

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