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ANALYSIS - Final act in vaccine wars: Global and rising power strategies

However, as the race against time continues to mitigate the pandemic's effects, it has become an increasing trend for specific countries and regional blocs to keep their vaccine production potential primarily for their own populations

Sadik Unay   | 08.04.2021
ANALYSIS - Final act in vaccine wars: Global and rising power strategies

[ The author is a professor of economics at Istanbul University ]


In an article titled "Post-Hegemonic World and Vaccine Wars" that we authored for Anadolu Agency last August, we demonstrated how the COVID-19 pandemic had deepened the dynamics of instability in the multi-polar global system. We stated that this public health threat, which emerged in a period of thinning atmosphere of international coordination and weakening multilateral institutional structures, was addressed by governments with a rationale of mass mobilization and signs of a war were on the horizon to access vaccines that have a key role in combating the pandemic. We also expressed that global cutthroat competition was in the making as the vaccines to be developed against COVID-19 and its variants would give superiority in the billion-dose global biotechnology market and political prestige, especially to rising powers. We stated that vaccine production and distribution would be a new front in the hegemony struggle between the global and emerging powers, already raging in forms of currency, trade as well as space and technology wars.

In the six months since we penned that article, as a result of the joint efforts of multinational pharmaceutical companies, public authorities, and research institutions, vaccine development studies have progressed faster than ever before. Different types of vaccines produced by various companies passed the stages of development and mass testing and were licensed in an accelerated manner and made available to commercial markets and public use. However, in this environment, vaccine wars have erupted on how to control global vaccine production and distribution mechanisms that can only advance at a certain speed and which countries and segments of society will be given priority in vaccination. Today, all major players in the global vaccine market seek to accelerate mass vaccination campaigns by using their biomedical production capacities most effectively and encouraging cooperation among multinational pharmaceutical companies. However, as the race against time continues to mitigate the pandemic's effects, it has become an increasing trend for specific countries and regional blocs to keep their vaccine production potential within their geographic boundaries, primarily for their own populations.

Vaccine wars following footprints of global income distribution

When pressure from global vaccine demand on the countries that are home to vaccine-producing facilities begins to accumulate and become unsurmountable, we are likely to encounter the following scenario: Introducing international restrictions on the export of vaccines, or even bans to prioritize own populations in the vaccine supply. The fact that the global vaccine industry is concentrated in the hands of certain countries where biomedical facilities are located and do not show a geographical spread in line with the current trend towards post-Fordism in the world economy provides a suitable basis for such protective reflexes. Restrictions on exports by countries or regional blocs such as the EU where manufacturing companies have facilities are located may cause severe challenges in the global vaccine supply chain. Besides, if the vaccine trade war escalates further, international restrictions may be imposed on raw materials used extensively in vaccine production but only available in a handful of countries. In this context, the fierce competition between national governments for access to medical devices such as masks, protective clothing, and ventilators in the first wave of the pandemic may be suggestive regarding the future problems that may be faced. The main structural problem that can trigger the vaccine war agenda in the short term is that the total vaccine production capacity in the world is sufficient to vaccinate only half of the global population in 2021 or even by 2022. Also, the concentration of access opportunities to vaccination in the industrialized countries of the northern hemisphere and a small number of rising powers forces the vaccine wars to follow the footprints of the global income distribution. While high-income countries, which have claimed the lion's share in both production and supply in the global vaccine market, are trying to vaccinate their entire populations by purchasing most of their production capacity in advance and even stockpile, they also trigger new waves of protectionism.

Among the developing countries with a large population, except for emerging powers such as Russia, China, and India, it is known that there are no actors with the potential of vaccine development and mass production. In this case, many developing countries have to wait for international humanitarian organizations to step in through the World Health Organization's (WHO) COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Program (COVAX) on the purpose of vaccine supply. COVAX, which has the aim of delivering 2 billion doses of vaccine to developing countries in 2021 through purchases and grants, is progressing rather slowly as it is overshadowed by geopolitical concerns and political competition. It is highly unlikely vaccines that are produced by multinational corporations based in the US and Europe to penetrate into Russia and China and national markets that are under the influence of the two, or for Russian and Chinese vaccines to find access to Western markets.

Therefore, besides supply-demand imbalances, serious geopolitical concerns also lead to the global vaccine market becoming a highly distorted structure. It is seen that control and monopolization attempts to be established on international producers' production potentials in this distorted market structure also trigger serious conflicts between industrialized countries. The escalation of the vaccine supply dispute between the EU and AstraZeneca in recent weeks to the level of issuing threats of banning the export of vaccines produced in the EU to outside the bloc is the most recent example of this.

'From vaccine diplomacy to vaccine thuggery'

The European Commission's protectionist outbursts that triggered the vaccine wars agenda are the manifestations of the apparent fact that European countries, including Germany, where the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was developed, have lagged behind in the global vaccination race. The European Commission has decided to manage the vaccine purchasing processes of EU countries from a single center within an approach of regional solidarity and financial rationality that does not take into account the protectionist reflexes that occur in the era of the pandemic. This approach, which prevents governments from making agreements with vaccine producers on their own, was based on the understanding that better prices can be obtained with the bargaining advantages provided by the EU single market of nearly 450 million people. At the same time, hoping to give a symbolic message of solidarity between the powerful core group and low-income periphery group of the EU countries, a system was tried to be built in which these countries will receive vaccines at the same time and begin to administer them to their populations. Things got complicated when the impractical bureaucracy of the EU, hoping that many more commercial vaccines will come to the market and there will be no global supply problems, was too late to make joint decisions and deal with international pharmaceutical companies.

The US government, which allocates almost all vaccine manufacturing capacity of Moderna to its own population, also made an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech for 600 million doses of vaccine in July last year. EU governments, who had predicted that there would be no problems in vaccine production, have waited until November to order 300 million doses. However, when difficulties in the supply chain were experienced at production facilities in Belgium -- where AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are also manufactured --there were serious delays in the vaccination program and with increased political pressures, EU's regional solidarity plan came to an end. Despite being the country where the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was developed, Germany and countries such as France, Denmark, and Hungary, which faced challenges in getting sufficient jabs, started initiatives to purchase vaccines by deactivating the EU. The process, which continued with the escalation of tensions among EU partners and the use of harsh political rhetoric such as "transition from vaccine diplomacy to vaccine thuggery," was triggered after delivery cutbacks by Pfizer and AstraZeneca in following supply issues at their Belgian facilities.

Although AstraZeneca, the UK's biggest vaccine supplier, stated that the British government, which made the purchase agreement three months earlier, is a delivery priority, EU leaders wanted the company to eliminate the interruptions by directing the production at its facilities in the UK to Europe. The British government, acting with the self-confidence of the post-Brexit era, did not allow such a change, stating that its citizens have priority in access to vaccines. The European Commission, which finally put a threat of export restrictions on the table for all vaccines produced in Europe, tried to persuade the British government to give up on parts of the AstraZeneca quota in exchange for receiving Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines produced in Belgium. Even if a step back from this threat that causes tension in EU-UK relations, the execution of vaccine diplomacy with mutual threats and vulgar protectionism tactics instead of refined methods has the potential to open Pandora's Box and cause a global escalation of the vaccine wars.

Global injustices deepening

On the other hand, emerging powers such as China, Russia, and India, who have implemented different forms of state capitalism, have also seen the agenda of global vaccine wars as an important opportunity to increase their political and diplomatic influence in the international system. While the major players of the vaccine wars in the Western world were multinational pharmaceutical companies and the public actors trying to find a way to deal with them, political leaderships played more active roles of guidance on the side of the emerging powers. In this context, naming the vaccine Sputnik, which was announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a very early period and before the essential clinical trials and licensing practice were completed, revealed that this issue was treated as a matter of national honor, just like space wars. Although the Sputnik V vaccine was produced by skipping standard clinical procedures in the global industry and accelerating human trials, its effectiveness was found to be high in recent academic studies. In this context, both Putin, who put up a show of power over vaccines, and governments of countries such as Iran and Argentina, which have close ties with Moscow, and allowed the vaccine to be administered before its effectiveness has been proven, were quite relieved. Argentina, which participated in the clinical trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, preferred the Sputnik V vaccine and successfully tackled the pandemic, which was seen as a success in public diplomacy on the part of Russia. On the other hand, many governments, which have close political and economic relations with China and attracted significant foreign capital investments as part of the "Belt and Road" initiative, preferred China's Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.

Especially many countries in South Asia have chosen to cooperate with India, which has become prominent as an important player in the global vaccine wars. India, which is trying to compete with China in many areas politically and economically, stands out as an important player that produces almost half of the vaccines in the world with its serious biomedical industry infrastructure in the pandemic environment. India has gained a significant advantage on the one hand by manufacturing AstraZeneca's jab, and on the other supplying the global market the Covaxin vaccine it developed through accelerated procedures just like Russia's Sputnik V. Besides, Modi administration's public diplomacy by donating millions of doses of Covaxin to neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan were important in terms of goals of increasing regional geopolitical efficiency and gaining an international reputation. The vaccine wars were seen as an opportunity by the Modi administration, which wanted to strengthen their country's international reputation against China, with which relations have been tense for quite some time.

Global vaccine wars have already begun to create a gap between countries that produce vaccines and countries that do not; countries have opportunities to purchase vaccines for their entire population and countries that have not; countries that can influence multinational companies and countries that cannot; countries, thanks to their geopolitical connections, that can and cannot reach vaccine supplies. Directing the production potential of the global vaccine market to the countries of the northern hemisphere in consideration of neo-protectionism waves stands before us as a risk factor that can both deepen global injustices and inequalities and increase the human and economic damages by prolonging the period of the pandemic.

* Translated from Turkish by Aysenur Albayrak

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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