Covid-19 Vaccine: The Global Race for Production and Distribution

Cover by TNGO illustrator Andrea Ruffoni Semidey

The Coronavirus pandemic has evolved into an international competition to produce and secure the doses of the first Covid-19 vaccine. Countries from each corner of the globe are racing to tackle the virus within their respective borders. The competition is two-fold, concerning both production and distribution. Some of the biggest players on the international stage are heavily investing in their national development of a vaccine.

On one hand, this is motivated by a need to protect citizens. However, it is also driven by the promised benefits of a strengthened global position for the first producer of an approved vaccine. Equally, the process of distribution has become a political competition amongst nations, regarding accessibility to doses.

THE RACE TO PRODUCE THE FIRST VACCINE

Several countries have been working to develop the first Coronavirus vaccine, however, five countries are now completing phase 3 of trials: the USA, UK, Germany, Russia, and China. This final phase examines the vaccine’s effectiveness in large groups of people and identifies potential side effects arising in these groups (Gavi, 2020). It is therefore safe to say that these are the countries leading the global race for the development of the first Covid-19 vaccine.

Russia was the first country to register a vaccine in August this year, despite the fact that the vaccine had not yet been tested in phase 3 trials and had not been submitted for international approval. Therefore, discourse surrounding the Russian vaccine has been broadly sceptical, with the primary concern being that the vaccine has not been tested on a large group of people. In November, US company Moderna filed for approval of its vaccine following phase 3 trials, as has Chinese firm Sinopharm. The US and German Pfizer-Biontech vaccine had also concluded phase 3 trials in late November, and has since become the first vaccine to be approved, with the UK becoming the first country to roll it out.

Countries and institutions in phase 3 trials of the Covid-19 vaccine Source: Gavi

The country whose vaccine is approved first will arguably earn a stronger geopolitical and economic position. With those leading the race being major global players like the US, UK, Russia, and China, the competition to receive approval has merely added to existing political and economic competition between these nations. Expectedly, the first country to produce an internationally approved vaccine will be most depended on to aid other global players in combatting the virus within their borders. Following its approval of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, the UK has instantly announced plans for mass vaccination within the country. We can therefore expect that both the US and Germany will significantly benefit from this landmark approval, as the company is likely to secure instant orders from other nations following in the UK’s footsteps. Such an advantageous position grants the opportunity to remedy internal damages caused by COVID-19 in a country (or countries, in this case), such as ameliorating an economic crisis.

However, existing global political relations need to be considered: who sides with who? It is not guaranteed that the first producer of an approved vaccine will be the one most nations turn to. Existing alliances mean that nations have already secured preferences among each other, despite who leads the race. Although scepticism has clouded Russia’s vaccine, mainly from the West, Turkish authorities have engaged in talks with Russia to secure doses of the vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute. This is a testament to Russia and Turkey’s alliance, which has served the two countries previously during the international conflict, and now during a pandemic.

Propaganda and bias have also played a significant role in vaccine-producing countries’ geopolitical credibility. Countries developing vaccines have been denouncing each other’s efforts in research and development. It is therefore not so much a matter of who is first, but who is trusted. US President Donald Trump has often called COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus‘ and has openly criticized China over its management of the then epidemic. The President’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has later claimed that China has attempted to steal COVID-19 vaccine research from the West. Such rhetoric influences the extent to which China’s vaccine development is deemed credible by the West, primarily the US.

THE RACE TO SECURE DOSES

Despite the widespread focus on who would be the first to release an approved COVID-19 vaccine, numerous pre-purchase agreements have already been in place worldwide for doses of forthcoming vaccines. Countries across the world have secured multiple options for acquiring vaccine doses, through deals with several nations and institutions at once. This includes the countries which are working to develop a vaccine themselves, as they continue to secure additional doses for their citizens. Pfizer-Biontech is therefore not the only company that will be facing an onslaught of orders, as existing deals have already shown reliance on numerous vaccine developers.

The number of doses secured by each country/region/institution through pre-purchase agreements, August 2020 Source: AFP

Those who have already secured large numbers of vaccine doses through pre-purchase agreements are predominantly higher-income countries and are ultimately ahead in this race. The US, Japan, the United Kingdom and European countries have secured around a quarter of currently available doses. The disproportionate access to COVID-19 vaccines has raised concern. Within the initial months of a vaccine’s release, only a finite number of doses will be available. With wealthier countries buying up currently available vaccine doses, there is concern that low-income countries will get left behind, hindering their ability to tackle the virus.

COVAX: A SOLUTION?

Covax was set up as a response to these concerns. Led by the Vaccine Alliance Gavi, the World Health Organisation, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the organisation works to advance the development of COVID-19 vaccines and solve the issue posed by accessibility to vaccines. With a membership of 186 countries, Covax’s mission statement is to ensure an equitable distribution of vaccines globally. Many of Covax’s members are contributors to the organisation’s fund to distribute vaccines to low and middle-income countries in need.

Source: Gavi

However, while members of Covax are helping to supply vaccines, they continue to make independent pre-purchase agreements for vaccine doses to their own countries. The European Union has pledged 500 million euros to Covax so far, bringing the organisation closer to its target of 2 billion doses for the 92 countries in need. The EU, however, continues to acquire separate contracts with pharmaceutical companies and has secured at least 1 billion doses for its 27 member states so far. Although it should be noted that the EU provides the option to its members to donate their allocated doses to lower and middle-income countries.

China has also introduced efforts to ensure the distribution of vaccines around the world. Coined ‘vaccine diplomacy‘, China’s initiative is a response to the issue of unequal accessibility to vaccines, as well as a response to the criticism it has received from countries like the US amid COVID-19. The country has therefore independently committed to distributing its vaccines equitably around the world and has offered to provide loans to lower-income countries to be able to purchase vaccines.

  • Do pre-purchase agreements remove any significance attached to a nation becoming the first to produce an approved vaccine?
    • Does it make that much difference to the first nation’s geopolitical and economic position?
  • Will initiatives like Covax succeed in assuring globally equitable distribution of vaccine doses if individual countries continue to make pre-purchase agreements to secure their own desired number of doses?
  • Is the race for vaccine doses furthering the economic and health inequality between high income and low-income countries?

Suggested Readings

Callaway, Ewen (2020). “The unequal scramble for coronavirus vaccines – by the numbers.” Nature, 24 August, 2020.

Haass, Richard (2020). “The politics of a COVID-19 vaccine.” Council on Foreign Relations, 14 July, 2020.

Regalado, Antonio (2020). “Every country wants a Covid-19 vaccine. Who will get it first?”. MIT Technology Review, 13 August, 2020.

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