Against the hopes of the World Health Organization (WHO), the search for a vaccine to the novel coronavirus has devolved into a glory-hunting competition between some of the world’s biggest powers.
Speaking on Thursday at the daily global briefing on the fight against COVID-19, WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus warned that competition between countries would only hike prices for a drug that would surely not be as supplied as it is demanded.
“When a successful new vaccine is found, there will be greater demand than there is supply. Excess demand and competition for supply is already creating vaccine nationalism and risk of price gouging,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus.
The WHO boss is not sure that lives should be dependent on a “market failure” and advised that only “global solidarity, public sector investment and engagement can solve” the problem.
Neither vaccine nationalism nor the desire to financially profit from a global pandemic was unexpected. This is, after all, the world order the most powerful nations have ensured in the last several decades.
The coronavirus is the world’s most important public health problem at the moment. The race to solve a problem on this magnitude is comparable to the space war between the US and the USSR at the beginning of the Cold War.
Russia for one, implicitly admits this. Moscow has named its alleged vaccine Sputnik V after the world’s first satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
But where does this competition on steroids leave those in the global south, especially Africa?
Africa’s options in critical times
The United States and the United Kingdom have already taken first-in-line positions to secure the most promising candidates for a vaccine. The two powers have placed the biggest orders should any of these candidates yield fruit.
Of course, this development concerns more than the WHO director-general. Thomas J. Bollyky and Chad P. Brown, both economists, recently argued in a piece for Foreign Affairs that what the US and the UK are doing could prove counterproductive to fighting a global problem.
The economists explained: “Global cooperation on vaccine allocation would be the most efficient way to disrupt the spread of the virus. It would also spur economies, avoid supply chain disruptions, and prevent unnecessary geopolitical conflict.”
What remains to be seen is the political will on the part of those who can lead efforts for said global solidarity. For Africa’s countries, the simple and undignified truth is that they will follow the lead of the powers.
In May, the African Union Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that five countries were trialing various medications, with two Chinese-made vaccine trials in Egypt.
South Africa announced in June that it was also conducting research into a vaccine and although many others on the continent are too, the Rainbow Nation is thought to be the most equipped for success.
But the most spectacular headline for vaccine search in Africa has been a colossal PR nightmare. After announcing that its herbal concoction COVID Organics can cure the novel coronavirus, Madagascar’s claim has been challenged by some on the continent and the country has actually since seen a spike in coronavirus cases.
With expectations that a WHO-approved vaccine could possibly take more than a year, Africa can only watch, plan and wait. The politics and economics of the global race leave very little wiggle room and even less hope for poorer countries to influence outputs.