But if countries think of themselves, rather than the public interest, no amount of innovation could stop the destruction of Covid-19.
In particular, health experts fear a repeat of 2009, when wealthy countries ran during the H1N1 flu outbreak to get limited doses of vaccine for themselves “without thinking about where a vaccine might do the most good,” says Schwartz. Mexico, where the disease originated, was still struggling to get supplies, even though other countries had extra supplies. Only after the threat had passed had the richer countries donated their supplies to the poorer.
Pandemic students say that any rich country that thinks this kind of “vaccinationalism” will make it is crazy.
“A pandemic will not go away until the transmission is stopped worldwide,” said Scott Rosenstein, director of Eurasia Group’s global health group, said in May. “The most effective way to do that is probably by first vaccinating primary health care workers and at-risk populations in as many countries as possible.”
“Nationalism is not beneficial to anyone because it slows global growth,” said Goldin, the Oxford professor. “It slows down the global response to the pandemic and undermines the ability to deal with other threats.”
Complicating the race is the fact this biotech supremacy is increasingly seen as a source of wealth and power.
“I’m a little biased,” says Loncar. “But you could say that the most important inventions in the future will come from biology and biotechnology,” he says, pointing to gene editing and CRISPR. As these developments are increasingly seen as not only profitable, but also as components of national security, he notes, “countries and regions around the world will invest heavily in making their biotech sectors self-sufficient. You want to lead the way . “
But for countries looking for that edge in the future, competition can be a double-edged sword. “Being the first is the goal, and then cheating and lying and stealing and cornering and not telling the truth is undermining your competitiveness,” says Carafano.
In his quest to make China a scientific superpower, for example, Xi has made scientists’ promotions and salaries dependent on publication in high-impact journals, Bouey says, leading to a number of damaging withdrawal and counterfeiting scandals. There is already international confidence in Chinese vaccines eroded significant since 2018, when it was found that a Chinese company is making vaccines with expired products.
In Russia, there is fear of the timeline of President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive vaccine can lead security concerns. Some suspect that Putin is using this race to try to call to mind the glory days of the Soviet Union when Russia led high-profile vaccination campaigns.
“If you hit the market first and the vaccine turns out to be ineffective or has terrible side effects,” Carafano warns, “the backlash will be much greater than the fact that you’re the first man out the door.”
All that risk to victory that could be very fleeting. While the first vaccine across the finish line will certainly be a direct source of pride for the researchers, manufacturers and the countries behind them – not to mention a profit opportunity for the producers – “honestly, the real achievement, the one the record books will tell, will be the vaccine that really … provides long-lasting, strong, robust, safe protection,” says Schwartz.
That kind of long-term recognition could come long after the current crop of world leaders has disappeared from the scene. For the time being, the victory in the vaccine race can be both a political and a medical achievement. Any excuse to gather people around a flag looms at a time when hundreds of thousands are dying and losing jobs. And as long as there are headlines, leaders will reach for it.
Goldin laughed when Trump, dreaming of scientific victories that turned into political victories, made patriotic notes in a campaign-style victory speech after seeing the silver SpaceX rocket carry two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in May. “The same spirit of American determination that sends our people into space will overcome this disease on earth,” said the President, praising America’s “boundless reserves of talent, tenacity and determination.”