Jethro Elsden is a Data Analyst and Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.
The early success of the UK in the vaccination rollout is obviously fantastic news, which will save many thousands of lives and bring with it a substantial economic dividend. However, there are growing calls for a fairer distribution of vaccines around the world and officials in the WHO have called for the UK to start sharing its vaccine supply.
Countries like the UK or US which have successfully secured early access to vaccine doses are accused of vaccine nationalism, supposedly hogging the supply of vaccines and preventing poorer nations getting access. But far from being a barrier to vaccinating the rest of the world and escaping the pandemic, vaccine nationalism has been key to developing and producing the jabs in record time, and the entire world will benefit because of it.
Of course, vaccine nationalism can be both good or bad depending on what we mean by it. For the purpose of simplicity here I suggest there are two types: one which is mostly good and will help to end the pandemic early. The other is mostly bad, which if pursued widely could prolong the crisis for many years.
The first involves competition between countries constrained by the rule of law – countries striking legal deals to pay and invest more, or offer data and help, to pharmaceutical firms in order to get doses early and be given dedicated supply. These countries benefit in the short term but the whole world benefits in the long term since development of vaccines gets expedited and supply ramps up more quickly. Countries such as the UK and the USA have, via the vaccine taskforce and Operation Warp Speed, practiced this first kind.
Via these schemes they have funded vaccine development to the tune of many billions of pounds and far more generously than the EU. While both the UK and USA have spent nearly £30 per capita on funding vaccine development, the EU has spent less than £5. The UK and USA’s funding has been instrumental in speeding up vaccine development and production, thus benefiting the whole world. At root of both schemes was a “selfish” desire to develop a vaccine and produce it at record speed in order to immunise the populations of the UK and US. The benefit for the rest of the world was of secondary importance.
Whereas the second sort involves countries competing by whatever means they can to get their hands-on vaccine doses, whether legal or not. These countries benefit in the short term but the whole world (including the countries which initially benefited) lose big time in the medium to long term. The EU has in recent weeks started to practice this second kind, with export controls and interference with private pharmaceutical firms, threatening to undermine global vaccine supply chains.
Luckily, they have pulled back from the brink but we almost ended up in the situation where the EU essentially stole some of the UK’s vaccine supply. This kind of vaccine nationalism is obviously disastrous; it undermines the private property rights and international supply chains which the pharmaceutical firms depend on to produce vaccines at scale. What firm would massively scale up production or rush to develop a new life-saving product if they could not be certain that their ability to sell the product will not be arbitrarily determined by bureaucrats.
While some have suggested that vaccine nationalism could cost up to $1.2 trillion per year, these estimates assume that in a world where access to the vaccine was equal and distribution was fair, the same progress in developing a vaccine, both in speed and scale, would have occurred.
This seems a rather pollyannaish assumption. It’s precisely because those countries “selfishly” invested in vaccines to cover their own populations that they were developed in record time and production is rapidly being scaled up. In time this will also ensure that poorer countries get access to vaccines in large numbers much earlier than in a realistic counterfactual where distribution was equal across the globe.
The key fact in the situation we are in is: It doesn’t matter very much whether we vaccinate fairly or unfairly. What really matters is how quickly we vaccinate everyone. This means maximising vaccine output as rapidly as possible. The pandemic won’t end until enough people around the world have gained immunity either via natural infection or vaccination in order to hit herd immunity – or at least have sufficient immunity so that severe disease will no longer overwhelm health services. The quickest way to get there is thus not to spread the vaccine supply out fairly, it is to increase supply as much as possible.
The spectre of variants emerging that evade immunity reinforce this point. We may need to vaccinate the world multiple times over the coming years and if we don’t have sufficient capacity to do so quickly then the pandemic could drag on for a long time. Countries like the UK and USA getting early access to tweaked versions of vaccines will undoubtedly be a good thing for the entire world if that means more money is invested in vaccine development and production, and the evidence from the first generation of vaccines which are now being distributed suggests this is exactly what will happen.
There are two main flaws with going for an internationally-coordinated fair distribution of vaccines. First, you end up with a big global free rider problem, with countries unwilling to invest if they can’t get early access to vaccines. The good sort of vaccine nationalism essentially solves this issue – countries like the UK and US invest more in development and production – or in the case of Israel pay far more than everyone else – and thus gets early access to the vaccines, but in turn vaccines arrive earlier and production ramps up much more quickly which massively benefits the entire world.
Second, and not for the first time during the pandemic, the dynamic nature of markets is being underappreciated. Supply is not static – given an increase in effective demand markets will adjust and increase supply. We saw this in the spring in the initial stages of the crisis; when PPE was in serious short supply, much higher demand led to firms increasing production – and new firms entering the market. Very rapidly shortages disappeared and have not returned since. The same is true of the market for vaccines, there’s a big global shortage of supply at the moment, what we need is an increase in production not fair rationing of existing supply.
Of course, vaccine nationalism doesn’t mean you then can’t help poorer nations get access to vaccines further down the line once supply ramps up. The UK is already playing a key role in this regard, mobilising over $1 billion of funding for COVAX the international scheme to ensure poorer countries get access to vaccines, making it one of the most generous funders of the scheme.
It will be far more effective going down this route and giving poorer nations the money in which to join the global vaccine market, which will increase effective demand and in time feed through into increased supply. Rather than trying to ration vaccines even more than they already are in richer nations like the UK and USA and redistribute them around the world. All the latter will accomplish is to spread what little supply the world does have even more thinly without doing anything to increase supply.