EU threatens to cut off vaccine supplies

”Full responsibility”: Boris Johnson, grief-stricken, as the UK passed 100,000 Covid deaths. © Getty

Are coronavirus jabs the new currency of power? In the past, empires rose and fell on the back of salt, gold and oil. Now some argue it will be vaccines that reshape global politics.

The press was up in arms. “Brussels threatens to block vaccine”, was The Telegraph’s headline. The Daily Mail warned of a “great vaccine blockade”. For some, it was the opening salvo in the “vaccine wars” – the growing competition between countries using vaccines to their own advantage.

The row started on Monday evening, when AstraZeneca informed the European Union that it would not be able to provide it with as many vaccines as it had originally promised. That caused outrage in the EU, which demanded to know where its vaccines had gone.

Shortly afterwards, the EU threatened to restrict exports of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – largely produced in Belgium – to safeguard its own vaccine supplies. This caused panic in the UK, which is scheduled to receive 3.5 million Pfizer vaccines.

What sparked all this squabbling? The countries that vaccinate the quickest will get a competitive advantage in global trade. The world’s biggest economies have been forced into repeated lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid-19. A rapid vaccination programme will allow them to reopen sooner than their economic rivals.

Vaccine producers can use their supplies to put pressure on other countries. Ukraine has refused vaccines from Russia. So, Russia is using this to stir up outrage in Ukraine against its anti-Russian government.

All this makes vaccines very valuable, and the richest nations are taking steps to secure their supply. Early in the pandemic, some poorer countries asked the World Trade Organisation to suspend intellectual property rights on all Covid-19 jabs. But richer states banded together to block the proposal, ensuring they would keep tight control of the world’s vaccine supply.

As a result, some suggest that Covid-19 vaccines are the latest in a long series of commodities that have reshaped geopolitics throughout world history.

For much of our history, salt was the world’s most valuable commodity. Whoever controlled salt supplies had huge power, and rulers used it to expand and maintain their authority over their own people and neighbouring countries.

Poland emerged as a great European power on the back of its abundant salt mines, only to collapse when German sea salt outcompeted its inferior rock salt.

Similarly, control of gold and silver has been the making and breaking of empires. Spain colonised South America because of its deep gold and silver mines and became Europe’s foremost economic and military power.

In the 19th Century, coal became the world’s most important commodity. Control of supplies meant industrialisation, and those countries that industrialised – Britain and the US – dominated the global market to become the world’s most powerful nations.

Then in the 20th Century, it was oil that changed global politics. It even sparked wars, notably the Gulf War, in which Iraq invaded Kuwait to keep the price of oil high.

Are Covid jabs the new currency of power?

Salt of the earth

Yes, say some. Competition over scarce resources has been a constant feature of world history. There is a huge competitive advantage for those countries that can vaccinate their own population quickly, and control the supply of vaccines to other countries. The countries that corner the vaccine market will be in pole position to dominate world trade after the pandemic.

Not at all, say others. The vaccine will only be valuable for as long as the pandemic continues. Vaccine producers are under considerable moral pressure to make the vaccine available to poorer countries with no strings attached. More than anything else, the vaccine seems to have deepened existing geopolitical relations, and inequalities between the Global North and South.

You Decide

  1. How can countries be persuaded to cooperate with each other?
  2. Should pharmaceutical companies be allowed exclusive rights to produce life-saving medicines, or should anyone be able to manufacture them?

Activities

  1. Design a logo for a new organisation that will encourage nations to work together on their vaccine programmes.
  2. Write a letter to the WTO supporting or opposing the suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

Some People Say...

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970), British philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the pandemic will keep wreaking havoc on the global economy until the entire world is vaccinated. Even if, for example, the UK vaccinates its whole population and lifts its lockdown, its economy will suffer because many of its businesses are reliant on products manufactured in the EU, which it will not be able to access easily while the continent is still in lockdown. As such, it is in everyone’s interests that the whole world be vaccinated quickly.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not the vaccine should be mandatory. Some argue that we should not be allowed to make choices that harm others – and since not being vaccinated puts others at risk, they argue everyone should be required to have it. Others warn that this risks fuelling conspiracy theories about vaccinations and state surveillance. They think that it is more effective and more democratic to persuade people of the benefits of vaccination.

Word Watch

Opening salvo
The first part of a speech or a series of actions intended to get a particular result. The phrase is often used to refer to political speeches.
AstraZeneca
The pharmaceuticals company that produced a Covid-19 vaccine with Oxford University. It was praised for agreeing to sell its vaccine cheaply to developing nations, but it has since been criticised for failing to deliver on its pledges.
Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine
The vaccine developed by German biotechnology company BioNTech and produced by American pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer.
Ukraine
One of the largest countries in eastern Europe, it gained its independence from Russia in 1991. Since then it has often clashed with Russia, which occupied Crimea, part of Ukraine’s territory, in 2014.
World Trade Organisation
A supranational organisation that regulates world trade. It was founded in 1995.
Intellectual property rights
These allow Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, the three companies with exclusive rights over vaccines produced in the West, to sue anyone who produces copies of their vaccines.
Commodities
Any product that can be bought or sold. The term comes from the Latin commodus, meaning “benefit”.
Poland
The Kingdom of Poland first emerged in 1025 and was briefly the largest state in Europe. It was divided up between its neighbours in 1795, but brought back into existence in 1919, after World War One.
Rock salt
Most salt is either mined (rock salt) or extracted from the sea (sea salt). Salt mining was historically one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, as the salt in the air quickly dehydrated miners.
Industrialisation
The conversion of a country’s manufacturing from small-scale, hand-operated production to large-scale, machine-powered production.
Gulf War
In 1990, Iraq accused Kuwait of undercutting its oil prices, then invaded the nation to take control of its oil supplies. It was soon driven out of the country by a coalition led by the USA.

Subjects

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