The distribution of Covid-19 vaccines this week, in record time and with stunning effectiveness rates in clinical trials, is a remarkable feat of cross-border collaboration. The first trial-tested vaccine to win approval anywhere in the world was designed by a German company run by a Turkish couple (BioNTech), packaged and distributed by an American multinational with facilities across the world (Pfizer) and manufactured at a plant in Belgium. It is a case study in the potential of transnational co-operation.
It was always a forlorn hope that everyone would recognise it as such, and so it proved. For Boris Johnson's government, the first to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, an early regulatory green light seemed of value chiefly as an opportunity for chauvinistic chest-thumping. Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the UK won the global race simply because it was "a much better country" than all the others. Health secretary Matt Hancock falsely claimed that Brexit had enabled London to grant early authorisation. It was only a matter of time before the second World War was invoked; Hancock duly delivered when he tearfully declared it "V Day".
The British are hardly alone in seeing the vaccine race as an opportunity for political one-upmanship. Having invested huge political capital – as well as vast amounts of actual capital – in the search for a vaccine, Donald Trump has been as keen to attach his name to the process as he has been eager to detach himself from the catastrophic failure to stop Covid-19 from running rampant across the United States.
At a ceremony that key vaccine-makers declined to attend at the White House this week, Trump celebrated the "miracle" vaccine and signed an executive order designed to pressure manufacturers to prioritise shipments within the US over other countries. The order appears to be of no legal consequence; nobody quite knows what it even means.
Trump long ago lost interest in Covid-19; he seldom appears alongside his public health experts these days and sounds bored when forced to speak on the subject
Russia also sees mass vaccination as an extension of geopolitical competition. Just hours after the UK said it would begin to distribute vaccines, Vladimir Putin, like a one-man medicines regulator, simply ordered his officials to do the same, even though it has yet to pass phase 3 clinical trials. Something similar occurred last month when the Pfizer/BioNTech duo announced that their vaccine was 90 per cent effective; the same day, Russia made the exact same claim for its Sputnik V vaccine. Even the name self-consciously recalls the Cold War space race and the heyday of Soviet science.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that those governments most urgently vaunting their competitive edge in the vaccine race are among those that performed worst in the battle to contain the disease. Trump long ago lost interest in Covid-19; he seldom appears alongside his public health experts these days and sounds bored when forced to speak on the subject. Yet the country he runs is going through an unthinkable crisis. More than 220,000 Americans have died of the disease. A further 100,000 are in hospital and intensive-care units across the US are at or near capacity.
Russia has had the world's fourth-highest number of infections since the pandemic began, and recorded more than 44,000 deaths. Hospital capacity is reportedly exceeding 95 per cent in 17 of the country's 85 provinces, and medics complain of a lack of medicines. The UK has fared even worse. It flirted with herd immunity before slowly changing course. Its "world-class" test-and-trace system is still in the conceptual phase, and its public health messaging has been erratic and confusing. According to the Financial Times, the UK is on course for the dubious honour of being the G7 country with the worst economic damage, the second-highest state spending and the second-highest death rate.
Little wonder that these leaders see the vaccine race as a relatively fast and easy way to recover their standing after failing at the more complex task of protecting people from the virus in the first place. They may even succeed in mitigating the political damage. But it’s a risky strategy. Medicines regulators in the EU and the US, knowing the cost of a botched decision would be immeasurable, believe their longer approval procedures are appropriate on medical grounds. Going a little slower also serves a useful practical purpose, because it gives governments more time to hone the daunting logistical operations required to deliver the vaccines and to resolve some of the ethical dilemmas the situation raises. British authorities were still trying to work out who would receive the vaccine, and in what order, as it was being dispatched to hospitals this week.
Just as important is the need to retain public faith in the process and to reassure those who worry about the rapid development timeline. Taking time to deliberate, being transparent about the process, showing that every precaution has been taken – these are essential steps in the process. Skipping those steps in pursuit of that empty, vainglorious declaration of victory is the surest way of pushing back the day when the real prize can be claimed.