Vaccine Nationalism, Diplomacy and its Impacts

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Context: As the world is gearing up for COVID-19 vaccination. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cautioned against 'vaccine nationalism' and held that it is in everybody's self-interest to take an equitable approach to vaccine distribution and deployment.

Mains: GS IV- Ethical conundrum of Vaccine Nationalism

What is Vaccine Nationalism?
  • When a country manages to secure doses of vaccines for its own citizens or residents and prioritises its own domestic markets before they are made available in other countries it is known as ‘vaccine nationalism’.
  • This is done through pre-purchase agreements between a government and a vaccine manufacturer.
  • For example, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the European Union have spent tens of billions of dollars on deals with vaccine front runners such as Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca Plc even before their effectiveness is proven.
Vaccine Nationalism: Past experience
  • The present race to hoard Covid-19 vaccines harks back to a similar situation that happened in 2009 during the H1N1 flu pandemic.
  • Australia, the first country to come up with a vaccine, blocked exports while some of the wealthiest countries entered into pre-purchase agreements with several pharmaceutical companies. The US alone obtained the right to buy 600,000 doses.
  • It was only when the H1N1 pandemic began to recede that developed countries offered to donate vaccine doses to poorer economies.
  • However, it must be noted that H1N1 was a milder disease and its impact was far lesser than Covid-19.
Impact of Vaccine Nationalism
  • Inaccessibility: Such pre agreements will make the initial few vaccines unaffordable and inaccessible to poor and developing countries
  • Economic slowdown: If countries with a large number of cases lag in obtaining the vaccine, the disease will continue to disrupt global supply chains and, as a result, economies around the world.
  • Health crisis: Hoarding Covid-19 vaccines while excluding others would deepen the health crisis due to pandemic.
Is there any law to prevent Vaccine Nationalism?
  • Even though vaccine nationalism runs against global public health principles, there are no provisions in international laws that prevent pre-purchase agreements.
Alternative Path: Global Collaboration
  • WHO-backed COVAX Facility mechanism
    • The facility aims to procure at least two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of next year for deployment and distribution mainly in the low- and middle-income countries.
    • So far, more than 170 countries have expressed interest: about 90 low- and middle-income countries and 80 fully self-financing countries.
    • The countries that join the initiative are assured supply of vaccines whenever they become successful. 
    • Moreover, the countries will get assured supplies to protect at least 20% of their populations.

What is COVAX Facility?

  • COVAX is the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator The ACT Accelerator is a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.
  • COVAX is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and WHO
  • Aims:
    • To accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
  • Significance:
    • The COVAX facility is functioning alongside manufacturers and governments to make sure the effective COVID vaccine is out there worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.
    • It will ensure equitable access to the coronavirus vaccines by pooling buying power from participating economies and providing volume guarantees from a variety of promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
    • The COVAX facility will enable vaccine manufacturers with higher expertise in large scale production of the new vaccines to form early at-risk investments in manufacturing capacity.
  • Benefits for participating nations:
    • The COVAX facility will ensure all the participating nations the simplest chance of gaining fast access to doses of the foremost effective COVID-19 vaccine.
    • The collaboration will accelerate the event and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines for each country within the world.
  • Target:
    • The COVAX facility targets to deliver a minimum of two billion doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine that has passed required regulatory approval by the top of 2021.
    • The vaccine will be offered to all nations in equal proportion to their population.
    • The doses are going to be later made available to support the country's need and vulnerability to the COVID-19 threat.

Vaccine Diplomacy and its Role in Foreign Policy

What is Vaccine Diplomacy?

  • “The branch of global health diplomacy that relies on the use or delivery of vaccines,”.

Historical context:

  • In the spirit of Louis Pasteur’s remarks that “science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity,” Britain’s Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine in 1798, he advised countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey, Spain, Canada, and Mexico on how to administer the smallpox vaccine.
  • An exceptional vaccine science diplomacy example is Dr Albert Sabin’s groundbreaking work on the oral polio vaccine.
  • During the Cold War, Dr Sabin travelled from the U.S. to the Soviet Union to collaborate with Soviet virologists on prototype development for the oral polio vaccine.

India’s Vaccine Diplomacy 

  • Background:
    • India is already known as the pharmacy of the world.
    • It is the largest producer of generic medicines, accounting for 20% of its global production. It meets 62% of the global demand for vaccines.
    • Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the country has been at the forefront of supplying medicines and generic drugs to others.
    • India received requests from more than 100 countries for hydroxychloroquine (once thought to help treat COVID-19) and paracetamol (a painkiller) and sent supplies to Brazil, the United States, and Israel.
    • By May 2020, India was spending $16 million on pharmaceuticals, test kits, and other medical equipment for about 90 countries.
  • India has officially started its vaccine diplomacy with the name “Vaccine Maitri” under its  Neighborhood First policy. 
  • The vaccine will be Supplied to the partner countries in a phased manner, keeping in mind the demand. 
  • India also will help all the countries in enhancing their cold chain and storage capacities for the delivery of Vaccines.

  • Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal have already received their Covishield vaccines from India.
  • In the cases of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, India is awaiting confirmation of necessary regulatory clearances.
  • India has also carried out capacity-building and training workshops for neighbouring countries.
  • However, the only exception to India’s vaccine diplomacy is Pakistan which has not been named as a neighbouring country for vaccine delivery.

Significance of Vaccine Diplomacy

  • Strategic importance
    • This will give a boost to India'sNeighbourhood First’ and `Act East Policy.It shows greater coordination between the two countries to save people from the global pandemic of COVID-19.
      • For instance, India is keen on mending its ties with Bangladesh. The citizenship law enacted last year and the news of $40 billion in investments from China to Bangladesh had strained ties between the two nations. The COVID-19 vaccine can let a little slack back in. 
      • Similarly, vaccine diplomacy provides an opportunity for India to resolve outstanding issues with Nepal. Relations between the two countries recently hit a new low when they entered into a heated exchange over the Kalapani territorial dispute—an area situated at the strategic China-Nepal-India trijunction. 
    • Tackling Chinese influence
      • Vaccine manufacture and distribution is one area where India has some comparative advantage over China, but the competition between the two may still be fierce.
      • China has even explicitly included vaccine distribution in its broader Health Silk Road initiative, which aims to bolster China’s international soft power.
      • In Indian Ocean countries like the Maldives and Mauritius, India’s vaccine diplomacy can help foster stronger ties in the region, and offset China’s growing influence attributable to its financial investments and social development projects. 

        India vs Chinese Vaccine Diplomacy

        • China is facing formidable competition” in its vaccine diplomacy from India.
        • India’s vaccine diplomacy has helped soothe some prickly relationships with neighbors in South Asia, “where it has been fighting an increasingly sharp diplomatic battle with China,”
        • Even on China’s borders, Indian shots are showing up. Mongolia’s prime minister received one of 150,000 free doses delivered by India.
        • On the other hand, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the president of Seychelles have taken Chinese vaccines.
        • One place where China’s influence still dominates is India’s arch-rival Pakistan, recipient of some $70 billion of Chinese financing for infrastructure. 
        • China is also having success in Africa and Latin America — major investment regions for Beijing. 
        • In the end, the competition between China and India to provide vaccines, especially to nations where their strategic interests overlap, is likely to help not only those nations but the rest of the world.
    • Checking Vaccine Nationalism
      • The predominant response to the disease has been to shut down and look inwards.
      • As the global demand for medicines, medical supplies, and personal protection equipment increased, countries imposed export prohibitions and restrictions to stabilize domestic supplies.
      • Vaccine nationalism raises the possibility that rich countries would attempt to hoard vaccines by striking pre-purchase deals with pharmaceutical companies.
      • India’s intervention by making vaccines available to needy countries disrupted the vaccine nationalism.

“How India defied Vaccine Nationalism and enhanced the spirit of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam”

  • Each country has its own diplomatic relations with other countries regarding scientific or political aspects.
  • When it comes to the utilization of concepts of science it leads to what is called science-based diplomacy or scientific diplomacy.
    • A subset of this science-based diplomacy or scientific diplomacy is nothing but Vaccine Diplomacy.
  • At this peak hour of the COVID-19 crisis, our country has come with its large helping hand to ensure vaccine supply to various countries.
  • From the very existence of India's history, it is evident that our country is a motherland for famous personalities like the pioneer of plastic surgery Susrutha, and it is also seen that the ancient universities like Nalanda, Thakshasila were having libraries named Dharma Kunj literally meaning the world of knowledge.
  • The present-day situation can be seen as a step our India has taken to evident its years of heritage and amicable relations with other nations.
  • Our government has come up with a great initiative, Vaccine Maitri, under which the vaccines made in collaboration with and indigenous are supplied to other nations besides Indians .
  • Though many countries have shown a great interest in so-called vaccine nationalism, our country is keen to put forth its policy of VASUDHAIVA KUTUMBAKAM, literally saying, the whole world to be our family.
  • Blessing in disguise:
    • In spite of being one of the worst hit countries by covid pandemic , India has come with a great step of supplying vaccines to other countries including Brazil, Canada, etc.
    • This makes India to develop its pharmaceutical industry and also prove its great diplomacy at the global level and it is possible due to reasonable cost and transparency in clinical trials conducted.
  • Way Forward
    • With the coordination and collaboration of many global partners, we can increase the use of vaccine diplomacy and vaccine science diplomacy in foreign policy. 
    • Vaccines are the single most powerful health interventions developed by modern medicine.
    • A Universal, equitable, and affordable supply of vaccines for low- and middle-income countries is needed more than ever.
    • In past epidemics, such as H1N1 influenza, many developing countries were on the outside looking in when it came to access.
    • India is now on the inside, and it can play a crucial role in health and safety in an increasingly interdependent world.

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