COVID-19 virus that appeared in China, spreads to almost the entire world within weeks. Bill Gates calls it “A Once-in-a Century Pandemic”. It took lives of more than half a million people, forced states to close their markets, factories and schools, compelled millions of people to stay at their homes and shattered the economies of worth trillions of dollars. World Health Organisation (WHO) and medical experts couldn’t yet find any solution to control this pandemic. However, there is an emerging consensus among the medical community that only a vaccine can prevent it.
Scale and severity of COVID-19 have required many countries and private research organisations to invest in preparing the vaccine for this pandemic. WHO, the United States, China and the European Union have financed billions of dollars for this purpose. More than 120 organisations are currently engaged in preparing the vaccine for COVID-19. Majority of these organisations are in western countries and are funded by private sector companies.
The rising death toll, falling economies and domestic political pressures have stressed the powerful countries to win the race of preparing CVOID-19 vaccine. If the US succeeds in creating a COVID-19 vaccine, it will strengthen the position of President Trump in upcoming presidential elections. Similarly, if China wins this race it can become a global leader in medical technology.
The global competition of the preparation of COVID-19 vaccine poses many important questions, such as; who will have the ownership rights – companies, states or WHO? Who will ensure the quality of the vaccine? Who will be the first user of the vaccine which country and then within the country which province or district? How the eight billion doses of vaccine will be prepared, by whom, when and where? Who will pay the cost – citizens or states? How the poor country will afford to buy it – who will support them in this economic crisis? What will force rich countries or vaccine producers to give or donate a vaccine to poor countries? who will convince the masses to trust the vaccine and many other questions?
WHO is perhaps the most suitable platform to find the answers to any or all these questions. The US has made this role of WHO controversial by alleging that it (WHO) favours China. The US is the largest donor of WHO and it has withdrawn its support. It will impact the performance of WHO in facilitating the equitable distribution of the vaccine. Moreover, a few other decisions by the US indicate that the world’s only superpower will play egoistically if the country (US) first prepares the vaccine.
President Trump’s “Operation Wrap Speed” pursues to procure 300 million doses of COVID-10 vaccine by January 2021. The US has paid in advance to the vaccine companies to procure initially produced doses. Similarly, Germany has proposed an alliance of the European countries to secure access to COVID-19 vaccine and mobilised a fund of US$2.7 billion for the advance procurement of doses. This power struggle over COVID-19 vaccine is further aggravated when US accused China-affiliated hackers who tried to steal the intellectual property of COVID-19 vaccine. Likewise, the UK, US and Canadian security agencies have alleged Russian hackers to sneak their research related to COVID-19 vaccine.
The contemporary global politics around COVID-19 vaccine recall the concept of “biopower” coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. He defined biopower as a “set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power”. Foucault cites his analysis of smallpox vaccine developed at the end of the 18th century. He thought that it was perhaps the first effort to manage the population through public health agenda. Production of knowledge is another subject comprehensively explained by Foucault.
The information produced and presented by the Governments affects the behaviours of the citizens to take the pandemic serious or not. Moreover, companies as the key player in COVID-19 vaccine preparation, think through the lens of profit maximisation rather focusing on human lives and they influence the Government as well. This makes the COVID-19 vaccine as a tool to enhance the biopower of powerful political players.
This “my country first” approach is termed as “vaccine nationalism” by public health experts at Harvard Medical School. The experts warned that this can prolong the process of preparing the vaccine and hence the duration of the pandemic. China’s President Xi Jinping recently offered a goodwill gesture to the international community by declaring the Chinese COVID-19 vaccine as a global public good and invited the US to join hands, but no such announcement is yet made by the US and the EU.