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Will vaccine nationalism become the new normal?

Inauguration of the new Covid 19 vaccination center at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, 15 February | PA Images

4 min read

Tensions with Europe over the supply of Covid jabs may no longer be grabbing the headlines, but vaccine nationalism is here to stay

The UK government has faced heavy criticism for many aspects of its response to the Covid pandemic, but the success of its vaccination strategy is clear for all to see. More than 13 million people have now received the first dose of a Covid jab – more than Germany, France and Italy combined – and the government is on track to meet its target to offer a degree of protection to the most vulnerable in society. However, the UK’s success has not come without incident. A nasty spat with the European Union over supplies of Covid jabs last month suggests the UK government and pharmaceutical sector should be ready for vaccine nationalism to be an increasingly normalised form of power politics, at least until supply can meet global demand.

Although the EU stepped back from the brink of a diplomatic row with the UK over limiting exports of Covid vaccinations to Northern Ireland in late January, the message was clear: even the EU, a bastion of the rules-based global order and long-time ally of the UK, was prepared to ditch a hard-fought international agreement when the supply of Covid jabs was at stake.

Vaccine nationalism is not new or unexpected in a situation where demand far outweighs supply. Similar patterns of behaviour were seen earlier in the pandemic when China sought to use its supplies of scarce personal protective equipment to further its own foreign policy interests, and US buyers reportedly snapped up consignments of Chinese masks that were destined for France at Shanghai airport. But while the UK was scrabbling around to buy PPE earlier in the pandemic, it now finds itself in the position of relative strength on Covid vaccines, having given approval for three jabs produced by BioNTech/Pfizer, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna. Thanks to early action to set up national production and supply lines, the UK is now ahead of many nations in the race to reopen its devastated locked down economy.

The UK is also in a strong position to use its vaccine supply to achieve other foreign policy goals: perhaps to support its ‘Global Britain’ trade doctrine or boost its soft power capabilities across the Global South, some of which are members of the Commonwealth. On a defensive level, it means the UK is less vulnerable to being put over a barrel by countries with vaccine supply.

Vaccine nationalism also has ramifications for the pharmaceutical sector and the UK government’s engagement with it. During a Health and Social Care Committee session in late January, Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS, said he hoped that pharmaceuticals would build up more resilient domestic supply chains which could ensure the smooth production and distribution of new and innovative medicines. In his words: “Very extended supply chains do not necessarily serve you well”.

What makes this potential shift important is that global supply chains have been an integral part in the process creating new drugs for well over 40 years. The language being used here presents a new form of ‘medicines protectionism’ which would aim to insulate the life sciences sector from international instability. The Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industries response to the International Trade Committee into Covid-19 also seems to reflect on the need to “increase future resilience” of supply chains which combines UK manufacturing of important medicines and targeted stockpiling measures.

But onshoring drug manufacturing will come with its own risks. Disentangling the pharmaceutical sector’s international supply chains will be incredibly complicated – from the raw materials used in medicines to manufacture and distribution, are highly specialised and spread across the globe.

This trend towards onshoring domestic production appears to also be spreading across the world. President Joe Biden has pledged to bring drug manufacturing to US shores through tackling tax code provisions which incentivised drug makers to move their production away from America towards countries with lower tax regimes.

The government may seek to enact new legislation, similar to America which contains a package of tax incentives and grants which help to incentivise the domestic production of medicines. A new £200m Life Sciences Investment Programme is just a start, and it is likely that over the coming years we will see a raft of new policy initiatives which further demonstrates the UK’s commitment to the onshoring of medicines production. This all shows that vaccine nationalism is becoming the new normal.


Nabil Rastani is Dods senior political consultant for health and international trade

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