‘Vaccine Nationalism’ vs Globalisation: What role for a supranational organisation?

Professor Grazia Ietto-Gillies and Professor Klaus Meyer led a discussion on global vaccine production and delivery challenges in this virtual event hosted by Essex Business School and Birkbeck’s Department of Management.

In less than a year, a vaccine to combat COVID-19 was developed and manufactured through global scientific collaboration. However, the logistics of global production and the global delivery of the vaccine has faced many challenges. We have seen the emergence of the vaccine nationalism which contradicts the WHO’s statement that ‘none of us will be protected until everyone is safe’.

This raises the question of whether a new supranational institution that oversees the governance of global production should be established or if the existing WTO/TRIPS (World Trade Organisation/ Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) institutions are good enough.

Professors Grazia Ietto-Gillies, Emeritus Professor of Applied Economics, London South Bank University and Visiting Professor at Birkbeck University of London, and Klaus Meyer, Professor of International Business, Ivey Business School, Western University, in London, Ontario opened up the discussion on the COVID-19 vaccine global production and delivery challenges.

This event is the second in a series co-hosted by Essex Business School, University of Essex and Birkbeck, University of London.

From Roosevelt to Bolsonaro: 75 years of integration and fragmentation

Professor letto-Gillies drew on a historical perspective, referring to Roosevelt’s 1944 statement ‘Economic diseases are highly communicable. It follows, therefore, that the economic health of every country is a proper matter of concern to all its neighbours, near and distant.’ This statement is true today but on a bigger and wider scale. Economic and environmental problems are highly transmissible, and movements of people are much wider and faster.

Where are we on the politics of the pandemic?

Professor Ietto-Gillies stated that there is fragmented politics in health and the environment, such as Bolsonaro, President of Brazil’s claims that COVID-19 is just a flu. There has been little coordination for strategies specific to the pandemic. The pandemic has also been used to bolster nationalism, through the race to be the first nation to develop the vaccine and their deployment across nations.

What sort of governance?

Finally, Professor Ietto-Gillies called for a supranational institution for health and for the environment as there is no appropriate global governance. Scientists are predicting that there will be more pandemics in the future. This highlights the need to develop scientific infrastructure for detection, centralised polices for containment and suppression of the virus through international funded vaccines production by a supernational institution. Unless we start thinking big, we are unlikely to achieve even a little.

COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing barriers and trade

Professor Meyer highlighted how developed countries are racing ahead in getting their population vaccinated, with the UK and US ahead of the EU. Whereas, developing countries, such as Africa, have barely started to get their population vaccinated.

Why is the UK ahead of the EU and Canada? The UK government focused on building the supply chain within the UK and negotiated early in building a strong contract. The UK contract contains commercial penalties in case of non-delivery or late delivery.

What are the barriers for the distribution of the vaccine?

Firstly, there are a number of ethical issues relating to clinical trials. They need to be conducted across multiple locations on different demographics and this requires regulation before they can be approved.

Secondly, the role of national institutions and export barriers is critical, especially if there is a reliance on another country for materials. Professor Meyer highlighted the fact that countries do not want to export, for example, then-US President Donald Trump banned the export of face masks in April 2020 due to the shortage at the time.

Apart from India, developing countries do not have domestic manufacturing capacity for advanced medications. TRIPS and compulsory licencing make the process of importing medication produced under the compulsory licencing exceedingly complex.

Lastly, there is a need to share knowledge. Developing countries such as India and South Africa have the manufacturing ability but lack scientific knowledge and infrastructure. A patent waver has been requested by several countries to the WTO in October 2020 but was opposed by the US and EU.

How can we move forward without rocking the system?

Professor Meyer suggested that there is a need for simplified rules for compulsory licensing under TRIPS to allow for the sharing of scientific knowledge to enable India and South Africa to supply the vaccine. All clinical trial data needs to be available in the public domain to allow it to inform future research and allow generic manufacturers to refer to them in their own applications.

Following the presentation, the attendees engaged in a dynamic debate.  One question was how viable and effective would a supernational organisation be? Professor Meyer suggested that we could seek to strengthen the WHO and make more resources available to them. Professor letto-Gillies emphasised that there was a restructure and industrial change after the Second World War and that there is a need for more governance than we have now.

In conclusion, Professor letto-Gillies and Professor Meyer presented two solutions to the problem of vaccine nationalism.  While the long term solution for vaccines and other public goods may  be a new supranational institution that oversees the governance of global production and distribution, a short term solution lays in reforms and coordination of existing institutions such as WTO and WHO.

The workshop recording can be accessed here.

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