The Real World of 'Vaccine Nationalism'

There are some policies so clearly in the national interest that they have survived the hyperpartisanship of the presidential transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. An example was provided at the March 10 meeting of the World Trade Organization’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. This may seem like a backwater venue, but the issue in question strikes at the core of present and future technological development. Some 100 “poor” countries led by South Africa are pushing for a waiver of intellectual property (IP) protection for vaccines that combat the COVID-19 pandemic. These countries lack the capability to develop their own vaccines. They want the formulas made available for free so anyone can produce them. Supplies will thus be more readily available and perhaps cheaper, though quality and effectiveness may suffer as less capable firms jump in to copy the cutting-edge technology used to create the new vaccines.

The U.S., along with the European Union, Canada, and Japan, argued IP protections were crucial to how quickly COVID-19 vaccines were developed by the top pharmaceutical companies. Research and development are extremely expensive. Though the industry received some government help, it is still dependent on sales to recover research and production costs. The Trump administration did not want to sink funds into failed programs, it only wanted to reward success. The capitalist in the White House understood the power of incentives, and so far, at least on this issue, so does President Biden who continued to block the WTO waiver.

That foreign countries want to get the golden eggs laid by our enterprising geese early and for free is understandable, but for activists within the U.S. to take up their cause seems inexplicable, apart from their hatred of enterprising geese. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is still vying for control of the Democratic party, lashed out at the U.S. position calling for a “People’s Vaccine, Not a Profit’s Vaccine” with a focus on the “Global South.” Sanders said "the United States should play a major role in promoting global cooperation and innovation” with a socialist’s usual inability to see that the two are in conflict. Innovation is the result of incentives and applies to medicine as is does to other human needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, not to mention all the other advances since the Industrial Revolution spawned in capitalist economies. Trying to get something for nothing usually ends up with nothing.

On March 2, Biden announced that the United States will have enough vaccine supply for all American adults by May. He made the announcement while outlining a partnership between Merck and Johnson & Johnson to produce the third vaccine authorized for emergency use. All three vaccines now available (the others being Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna) are the result of “Operation Warp Speed” launched by President Trump in May 2020. The President’s optimism that vaccines could be made available by January 2021 was based on his faith in the innovative capacity of the American pharmaceutical industry which is the world’s leader in biomedical science. And he knew this was the only path back to normalcy. Drastic lockdowns to “slow” but not “cure” the virus had done more harm than the virus itself.

Yet, there are those who do not want all Americans vaccinated to “win independence from the virus” as Biden proclaimed.  The WTO protest is only part of the larger campaign against “vaccine nationalism.” An early shot appeared in the liberal establishment journal Foreign Affairs last July by Thomas Bollyky, Director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and Chad Bown, of the globalist Peterson Institute for International Economics. Their complaint, “Absent an international, enforceable commitment to distribute vaccines globally in an equitable and rational way, leaders will instead prioritize taking care of their own populations over slowing the spread of Covid-19 elsewhere or helping protect essential health-care workers and highly vulnerable populations in other countries.” They want only “high priority” Americans to get shots, the rest being sent to “high priority” people overseas in a global central planning scheme. This became woke gospel. The World Health Organization launched a petition “rejecting vaccine nationalism at every turn.”

Bollyky and Bown believe it is “morally and ethically reprehensible” that countries should use their scientific advantages or greater wealth to take care of their own people first. They cannot accept that “Supplies of proven vaccines will be limited initially even in some rich countries, but the greatest suffering will be in low- and middle-income countries. Such places will be forced to watch as their wealthier counterparts deplete supplies and will have to wait months (or longer) for their replenishment.” This is, however, the real-world consequence of inequality; now as always.

As everyone who lives in the real world knows, some people, organizations and societies are better at getting things done than are others. Inequality in national capabilities is the result of generations, even centuries, of successful effort. The importance of this process, with its emphasis on investment, constructive parameters, proper values, and a desire for greatness, comes to the fore in times of crisis. This kind of earned “inequality” through achievement should be praised, not denigrated. History shows how hard it is to attain (and sustain).

The U.S. pharmaceutical industry is denounced because it is a source of “global inequality” based on intellectual property which rewards success. It is better, they claim, that we all die as equals than for some to be exalted for saving the rest. But the rest will be saved only because production will be ramped up through practical business measures that preserve the ability to meet the next crisis. Negotiations for the licensing of vaccines to foreign producers are in full swing. UK-based AstraZeneca has partnered with India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest medicine producer, to supply its massive market as well as send doses back to the UK. Johnson & Johnson is also negotiating with the Serum Institute. Pfizer is negotiating with several Latin American countries. Profits come from expanding markets, not restricting them.

Biden signed an executive order to “ensure that production shortages, trade disruptions, natural disasters and potential actions by foreign competitors and adversaries never leave the United States vulnerable again.” This was another continuation of a President Trump policy of bringing strategic supply-chains back home. The pharmaceutical sector should be a top priority because the production of far too many biochemical components have been allowed to go offshore, especially to China which certainly fits into the “competitors and adversaries” category. The U.S. needs to strengthen, not weaken, its pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing sectors as COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic.

The past year reminds us of how fortunate we are to be standing on the shoulders of giants as our country remains in the lead with the means for taking care of its own people. We expect our leaders to ensure that we stay in the lead and protect us from future dangers as the first principle of responsible government.  

William R. Hawkins is an economist and widely published author in the field of national security with a long career in academe, think tanks and on Capitol Hill.  

Image: Pixabay

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