The global race to acquire the covid-19 vaccine has accelerated in the last two weeks with the announced success of several of the projects underway. The final stretch of the investigation opens a geostrategic battle in which Europe, the United States, China and Russia, among others, will struggle to turn vaccination campaigns into a test of their stature as global powers. The EU, at the moment, is in a good position but lagging behind in relation to the US, which has reserved 800 million more doses. Even so, Europe hopes to make vaccination campaigns an international success thanks to its powerful public health system and the purchasing power provided by adding the demand from 27 countries with nearly 450 million inhabitants in total.
There are two races underway. One for finding and producing a vaccine on a large scale, a conquest that is already comparable to the space race that the US and the USSR fought in the 20th century. Another for obtaining it. And both somehow replicate the map of the world superpowers. Among the 11 prototypes that are in the last stage of development, four of them are Chinese (two from Sinopharm, one from Sinovac and one from CanSino) and one Russian (the so-called Sputnik V) compared to three Americans (Janssen, Moderna and Novavax ), a German-American one (BioNtech and Pfizer, but with support from the Chinese multinational Fosun); in addition to a British (AstraZeneca) and an Indian. They are followed, already in an advanced stage, by more possible vaccines from Japan, France, Korea, Israel… In total, there are almost 50 different prophylaxis modalities being tested in humans; and there are more than 200 candidates, according to the registry of the World Health Organization (WHO).
In parallel, the battle to be the first with vaccines runs, which shows that same world chess, but in a perhaps more crude and selfish way. “This is the key question: who will have access to the vaccine,” says Suerie Moon, co-director of the Center for Global Health at the Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva.
In this stark and ruthless competition, the EU starts off in a good position. The European Commission, according to the data provided by this community body, has closed contracts with five pharmaceutical companies (AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Janssen, BioNTech-Pfizer and CureVac) for the advance purchase of 1,225 million doses, plus 580 million in reserve . The total figure, 1,805 million, represents almost four doses of potential vaccines for each inhabitant of the Union, although in some cases two applications per person would be required, which would reduce that proportion. Brussels also continues negotiations with Moderna and Novavax.
“This portfolio of five types of vaccine, and hopefully six soon, is very important because it covers the four production technologies,” said the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, after a meeting by videoconference of the EU leaders to analyze the evolution of the pandemic and discuss, among other things, the strategies to follow during the vaccination campaigns that are expected to be launched in 2021.
The EU portfolio, however, falls well short of that of the US, where advance purchases amount to 1 billion doses; and they go up to 2.6 billion with reserves, according to the data platform Duke Global Health Innovation Center, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The total figure for the United States is eight doses per inhabitant, twice the European proportion.
The WHO insists that the vaccine will not be the master key to end the pandemic and that winning the race will be of little use if there are not several alternatives. “Vaccination by itself cannot end the pandemic, at least in the short term,” says Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO director general for Europe, from Geneva. Kluge, with 25 years of experience in public health in various parts of the planet, points out that “it is not a race in which one of the possible vaccines arrives first, but rather how many we have available to use.”
The global battle to successfully complete the fight against the pandemic does not end, therefore, with the discovery or acquisition of the vaccine. The next phase, perhaps the definitive one, will be the ability to distribute the drug safely, quickly and effectively. And there Europe could take the lead in the world race.
Elias Mossialous, director of the Department of Public Health at the London School of Economics, believes that getting to the vaccine first will be of little use if the drug’s efficacy is not proven. “Putin already wanted to score the goal when announcing the first vaccine, but will his project be successful?” Asks this professor. “Singing victory is one thing and achieving it, another.”
Branco Milanovic, an economist expert on inequality, believes that “it is not yet known how events will unfold.” “China leads in the promise of an affordable vaccine for the rest of the world, but the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use an entirely new technology and appear to be closer to being distributed,” adds Milanovic.
“The first country that achieves it will not only obtain an economic benefit, because it will alleviate the recession, but it will also legitimize itself before its citizens and strengthen its position at the international level”, predicts the socialist MEP Javier López, member of the Health Commission of the European Parliament.
López points out that Europe reaches the vaccination phase “with the competitive advantage of having a public health system that can allow a massive campaign that reaches a large part of the population.”
Europe has added another advantage by coordinating, via Brussels, the purchase offers of the 27 Member States instead of entering into a desperate competition as happened in the first phase of the pandemic with masks or respirators.
The EU thus obtains a much greater bargaining power which has resulted in a price of 15.5 euros for each dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (slightly below that paid by the US) and 10 euros for that of CureVac ( two euros discount on the market price), as reported last Friday by the Reuters agency. Brussels has also provided advance financing to both projects which, together with the purchase volume, results in better offers, according to community sources.
The Commission, on the other hand, has not yet managed to close an agreement with the American company Moderna, one of the most advanced projects and with a vaccine model that could be among the most effective because it requires much simpler logistics than others.
The arrival of vaccines has also unleashed a battle for the narrative at a global level in which the US, the EU, China or Russia try to exploit the possible success to benefit their domestic politics and to gain more weight in their respective areas of influence. .
Trump’s United States immediately showed the world its “America first”, also for vaccines. China, on the other hand, has seen a gap to improve its image when it arouses more rejection than ever in a good number of countries, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. And his companies are very active, concluding contracts all over the globe, from Asia to America.
Russia has also spread its tentacles in distant territories: the histrionic and authoritarian leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, announced that he would be the first to inject the Sputnik vaccine: “I will inject myself publicly. Experiment with me. I do not care. If it works for me, it works for everyone, ”he said shortly before announcing an agreement with Russia for clinical trials in its population. The Russian vaccine manufacturer has also closed agreements with Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela.
“A very clear use of the vaccine is seen as a strategic asset,” concludes Moon, from the Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva. “Countries that do not have it want to obtain it. And those who control it, of course, use it to strengthen their own political or economic position in the world. “
Between the expansive Chinese diplomacy and the American lock, the European Union remains the great defender of multilateralism: the EU is the main donor of COVAX, an instrument of multinational cooperation to ensure that vaccines reach poor countries.
But this well-intentioned mechanism has its cracks. It has the participation of 95 high-income countries and 92 low- or middle-income countries, but the United States is not among them. And it aspires to buy 2,000 million doses until the end of 2021, but so far it has only raised 1.7 billion euros of the 4.7 billion that are estimated to be necessary. Duke projections indicate that until 2024 there will not be enough vaccines for the entire world population.
Mossialous is convinced that in the most developed countries they will be able to access the necessary doses without great difficulty, but he fears “that countries in a middle income range will have many difficulties, because they neither have negotiating power nor will they receive the aid that will reach the poorer ”.
Milanovic advises that “if Western vaccines appear earlier and are not donated or sold at a reasonable price to less wealthy countries, this would definitely help the positive perception of China.” “But there are still too many unknowns, including the efficacy of vaccines,” adds this Serbian-American economist, who teaches at the City University of New York and the London School of Economics. He predicts that, in any case, “China will win in terms of relative position since it is the only major economy that is growing.”