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Vaccine nationalism: Could a Covid-19 vaccine be withheld from the public?

In the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University Hospital in Tübingen, 19 June 2020, a man holds a syringe with which a young woman, the first test person, was injected with a potential active substance against the corona virus | PA Images

Nabil Rastani | Dods Monitoring

4 min read

The race to find a vaccine is on – but with China and the US refusing to participate in multilateral approaches, what is the role of Global Britain?

When the discussion of a potential vaccine for coronavirus arises, emphasis is normally placed on the University of Oxford and Imperial College trials currently underway. However, the race to find a vaccine is not merely isolated to the UK, with major nations like America and China also seeking to find the vaccine first.

The weak international collaboration and broader geopolitical tensions are creating something of a 21st Century cold war, but in the place of a nuclear arms race, this fight is a biological one around tackling Covid-19.

The hunt for a useful vaccine, which experts predict will take around 12 months, is pivotal in rebuilding the global economy. Despite this, the multilateral approaches to quickly find a vaccine currently being advocated by the European Union and WHO are being snubbed by both the US and China.

For China’s Xi Jinping and America’s Donald Trump, an element of national prestige and geopolitical ambitions are at play. It is clear that whichever nation that gets the vaccine first will have significant bargaining chips on the international stage, from the ability to influence major economic and political decisions to even having the ability to reshape the world order as we know it.

For smaller nations caught between the rivalry between the US and China, like the UK, these are nervous times.

Global Britain and Covid-19

As the transition period comes to a formal end, the ability of the UK to rely on European economic and political clout will be vastly diminished.

This will mean that the Government will become increasingly reliant upon the Global Britain strategy to cautiously navigate the country through this turbulent period of global history.

The UK has been at the forefront in facilitating an internationalist approach to developing a new vaccine. This culminated in the Global Vaccine Summit held on 4 June which raised a pooled pot of funds to aid research and development work on understanding and effectively tackling Covid-19. Arguably, this multilateral effort is the first step in consolidating the Global Britain’s aim of expanding and reorganising the rules-based model, which is underpinned by global institutions and a broad adherence to the international norms. 

LISTEN: Nabil Rastani and Dods Political Consultants discuss the future of trade for the UK 


With trade talks underway with America, it will be interesting to see the extent to which cross-border collaboration will actually be discussed. Donald Trump has already launched a major domestic programme called Operation Warp Speed, which aims to find a vaccine by the end of the year. 

Will a preferential trade agreement give access to any new vaccine that might be developed through this scheme?  An important element of trade negotiations will be access to new and innovative medicines on both sides of the Atlantic, which will naturally include any form of Covid-19 treatment. But the American First doctrine could throw a preverbal spanner in the works and block the UK’s access to a vaccine for some time to come.

Interestingly, the recent tensions between China and the UK around Hong Kong could also play an important role. Although the idea of a trade deal with China was initially touted by Theresa May, significant stumbling blocs like intellectual property rights and broader tensions have dampened the prospects of an imminent agreement. The UK will therefore rely more significantly on the soft power tools associated with Global Britain in order to potentially gain access to a Chinese treatment.

The first test for Global Britain will not be the immediate ramifications of Brexit, but rather how the strategy supports helps the British public return to normality as quickly as possible.

What next?

  • Moderna COVID-19 vaccine – Phase III trial begins – TBC – Jul 
  • Johnson & Johnson – human trials of Covid-19 vaccine begin – TBC – Jul 
  • Covid-19 vaccine – Oxford University publishes trial results – TBC – Sep 
  • Covid-19 vaccine – AstraZeneca begins dosage roll-out –TBC – Oct


Nabil Rastani is the Dods Political Consultant focusing on Life Sciences, Public Health and International Trade. Hear from him along with Andy Frain, Laura Hutchinson, and Tessa Corina as they talk about the future of trade for the UK post-transition period. You can listen to the Podcast here.

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