Emerging Voices

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Dangers of Gatekeeping a Vaccine

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, over one hundred research teams around the world are taking aim at the virus from multiple angles. Vaccine nationalism has turned the potential vaccine for the coronavirus into an arms race. It’s no small danger that a COVID-19 vaccine could become a political pawn rather than a shared humanitarian tool.

The United States, with the greatest number of cases worldwide, is leading the race for a coronavirus vaccine. Through the White House coronavirus effort, dubbed Operation Warp Speed, the United States plans to invest in seven candidate vaccines. The United States’ most promising candidate at the moment is Moderna, a Massachusetts-based company speeding through the CDC’s vaccine test and approval process.

When it comes to creating a vaccine, the United States has declined to join international development efforts, meaning that they lose access to hundreds of millions of doses of a potential vaccine. “Many people naïvely assume it’s the United States that’s going to have (a vaccine) first because we have several candidates. But that may not be how it goes,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Although the United States seems to be making headway in the search for an effective vaccine, severing connection to the global research effort is unwise. A vaccine that reaches human clinical trials has a “17 percent chance of success,” making the failure rate extortionate.

Other nations are tackling the creation of a vaccine with more collaborative approaches, such as a facility called Covax. A spokesperson for Gavi, a public-private global health partnership with the goal of increasing access to immunization in poor countries, stated, “The benefits of a global approach is that even those countries fortunate enough to have secured their own supply, are able to mitigate the risk to their populations by gaining access to the Covax facility, the world’s largest portfolio of vaccine candidates.” The United States, however, decided to reject this approach. The U.S. recently bought more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of remdesivir, one of the few proven treatments for coronavirus, leaving little for the rest of the world.

Under international law, the country possessing a vaccine can gatekeep it as private property. Sam Halabi, a law professor at the University of Missouri and an expert on global health law, is confident this will happen. In the event that the U.S. develops a vaccine first after it is distributed to its own citizens, the U.S. will have proprietary control and can determine its own prioritization of which nations need the vaccine most across the globe. However, according to Bill Gates, this prioritization turns to market-driven factors, meaning the vaccine distribution will benefit the highest bidder, rather than those in need.

Another potential danger of vaccine nationalism is in the global economy. “As long as some parts of the world are suffering from the coronavirus, the global economy can’t recover,” Ian Goldin, professor of globalization at Oxford, explained. “As long as it’s present somewhere, the virus can mutate, it can move, and parts of the world economy will be devastated.” Goldin stated that failing to inoculate the global population against COVID-19 would have long-term economic implications, further adding to the economic distress caused by skyrocketing unemployment and a mass economic recession.

Why would the United States gatekeep its vaccine if doing so threatens such disastrous consequences? The world is becoming more restless with each passing day as we distance ourselves from normalcy in our daily lives and the prospect of reinstating our economy and economic welfare. We are becoming more incapacitated from restrictions and are unable to continue living in lockdown. The global pandemic will not come to an end until the United States decides to work alongside the rest of the world to produce a vaccine and allow everyone to have equitable and broad access.