Illustration by Dhabia AlMansoori

Vaccine Politics: Questions of Science, Trust and Power

The united search and distribution for a Covid-19 vaccine has given way to partisan politics and wide-scale distrust, threatening to extend the pandemic.

Jan 31, 2021

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread in 2020, humanity seemed to unite around a common purpose: finding a cure to put an end to the deadly virus as soon as possible. Nations small and large joined the worldwide effort, sharing research knowledge and funding, as the world’s scientists raced to develop a safe and effective vaccine.
After this period of momentary unity, however, global cooperation fell apart, and the vaccine effort became the latest victim of the tribalism and the selfish agendas that plague humanity. National interests have taken priority over global health. Hoarding vaccines, flaunting or outright discrediting international health organizations and authorities and using the media to disparage the efforts of other countries for national profit have been normalized. To make matters worse, even as we battle with new, more infectious variants of Covid-19 emerging around the globe, global willingness to take the Covid-19 vaccine is still mixed.
Some of the distrust can be attributed to how the development of vaccines has taken place. Western media — ever the agenda setter for the rest of the world — has focused its skepticism on the Chinese vaccines, often questioning the country’s adherence to rigorous scientific processes. Admittedly, China could have easily avoided this by going through the established scientific processes of clinical development and regulatory review. Instead, the country was more concerned with elevating its own image, even at the cost of safety, and has begun distributing its shots to various — mostly Asian and South American — countries before Phase Three trials could even be completed. Contributing to these problems is the general mistrust of countries like China and Russia. These countries muzzle scientists abroad, launch campaigns of genocide targeting dissenting ethnic groups, attempt to assassinate opposition figures and so on.
The blame for these atrocities lies squarely with these countries. What is less clear, and what the international community has entirely failed to clarify, is how these actions undermine global vaccination efforts. Of course, pragmatically speaking, it is more important to overcome the pandemic than to address other domestic and international political issues, and there should have been much stronger international cooperation with these countries to assuage people’s distrust, rather than vilifying them. There is also a clear hypocrisy associated with these criticisms. The U.S., no matter how much it prides itself as the leader of the free world, has failed to control the pandemic more so than any other country. Its political climate over the last three months has also been nothing short of catastrophic. Perhaps it is time to look inward before criticizing others.
Favoritism has also reared its ugly head around the world as countries walked over one another to secure doses. The U.S., for example, pressured its vaccine manufacturers to prioritize its own citizens in distribution, which flew in the face of various global pledges to help the disprivileged first. Even without direct state pressure, though, it was almost exclusively rich countries buying the initial batches of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, leaving billions in poorer nations at the mercy of the virus.
The rest of the world, increasingly desperate to control the pandemic, is left with little choice but to turn to China and Russia, no matter the safety and efficacy objections. Each deal is a victory for both these nations, and it reveals their true priorities: elevating their status and undermining their western competitors. It is no coincidence that an article from China’s Global Times specifically highlights the Philippines, a long-time U.S. ally, and Hungary, an EU member, as nations approaching China for help.
The world had ample opportunity to do better, but at each turn, it chose not to. International cooperation was cast aside in favor of nationalism and free market fundamentalism. The WHO established the COVAX initiative early on in the pandemic, providing a framework to ensure equitable access to vaccines around the world, and it warned that hoarding doses would only extend the pandemic. But neither state leaders nor pharmaceutical companies listened, the former too concerned with maintaining favourability at home, and the latter blinded by the promise of profit with few exceptions. Without a united front, distrust and division have increased among the people, with deadly consequences.
Covid-19 has taken the lives of more than two million people. With the world divided and struggling to match demand and facilitate distribution, it will continue its rampage. Clearly, we are not ready to step past our selfishness, even in the face of this global, imminent and catastrophic danger.
Máté Hekfusz is a staff writer and Data Editor. Email him at
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