The Coronavirus Vaccine Moment

James Denseiow

After almost a year since Covid-19 first made an appearance in China, the news from the pharmaceutical firm Pfizer that their trial vaccine appeared to be both safe and amazingly 90% effective sent shockwaves of joy across the world.

Media headlines suddenly pivoted from the marathon US election to interviews with excitable scientists who repeated the mantra that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, whilst rich countries and blocs like the EU have already pre-ordered millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine the hope is that the method it used will find similar success with the other trials nearing their end.

The stock markets reacted with similar joy, in the UK the FTSE index soared by £82 billion in best day since March after Covid vaccine injected hope into what 2021 could look like. Suddenly sectors like aviation and cinemas, previously suffering badly from the lockdowns, saw their stock surge as people’s analysis of the potential for the vaccine focused in on the concept of things being ‘back to normal’.

Certainly, it is a major milestone with all the usual caveats around final approvals and safety checks that are expected in the next few weeks. However, as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam, warned the vaccine won’t be a remedy for the second wave the country is currently suffering through and that while there may be light at the end of the tunnel we remain in darkness.

The news also triggered a debate as to how and to who a vaccine will be shared with. The Pfizer vaccine is unstable and requires ultra-cold refrigeration to survive, making it logistically difficult to deliver to hard to reach populations. Whilst the Pfizer team have spoken of a future whereby the vaccine could be converted into a power form in the immediate term we are dealing with a virus whose use may be dominated by the EU, UK and the US.

Unlike previous diseases in this case these are three of the worst hit areas for Covid-19 and there is a logic for focusing its distribution on developed states. In the UK there is already a process for prioritising health workers and then older age groups for receiving the virus. In the EU, with their 200 million pre-ordered doses, there is no clear sense as to how the vaccine will be shared with potential for arguments between states later down the line.

Looking at the more global picture there is the prospect of some countries accessing the vaccine and moving out of the crisis whilst others continue to trend negatively. In Iran, for example, the health ministry reported on Monday a rise of 10,463 in the number of daily coronavirus cases, bringing total cases in the Middle East’s worst-affected country to 692,949.

Whilst a Biden Presidency offers hope to Tehran that diplomacy may be reborn, there is the very real prospect that a lame duck Trump Presidency could tighten the sanctions on what is already one of the most sanctioned countries on the planet.

In other words, the prospect of vaccine nationalism has to be then filtered through the existing geopolitical landscape before we get a clearer idea as to how quickly the wider human population can build up immunity.

A torrent of other questions has emerged from the discovery of an effective vaccine. When will it reach those in conflict zones? what about refugees and those internally displaced? what about people living under the control of non-state armed groups? Inevitably the role and reach of the WHO will be tested like never before.

A reminder that the Pfizer vaccine is not the supposed first effective response to Covid, that mantle nominally belongs to the Russian ‘Sputnik’ vaccine which was announced in October and is reported to be similarly effective. There is the very real prospect that different geopolitical and economic blocks look to distribute ‘their’ vaccine to ‘their’ allies, resulting in a strange type of health arms race. There is no automatic reason to think that is a bad thing, although we should be wary that it does mean that people who need the vaccine more may potentially have to be at risk for longer if they don’t happen to live in a country of wealth or geopolitical importance.

by : jamse danselow