New variants of Covid-19 are spreading fast. Vaccine nationalism is spreading even faster – and Frances Cowell worries, could turn out to be even more lethal.

Thrust into the unknown territory of a pandemic, from which the only likely way out is for someone to come up with a safe, effective and affordable vaccine, any government will try and secure as much of the hypothetical vaccine as possible as soon as possible – which in practice meant signing up for doses well before those vaccines could actually be developed and produced.

But how to do that, when you have no idea who will come up with one, or when? The logical thing to do is to hedge your bets and pre-order from each reasonable-looking candidate, which is what governments did throughout 2020. But for that strategy to work, you need to trust that the contracts you signed will be honoured.

Under the terms of those contracts, the EU pre-funded a large proportion of vaccine research and was promised early delivery when successful vaccines became available. Other governments agreed contracts with a range of likely producers, though not all extended pre-funding of development.

When vaccine production got going, the EU sent about 25 million doses of the vaccines it had manufactured to various other countries, starting with over nine million to Britain – which then reneged on its contract to send several million in the other direction. Vaccine nationalism was trumping commercial integrity. Other countries started hoarding their stocks of vaccines.

You can accuse the EU of naivety in honouring its side of the contracts it signed, but when you think about why it did, the mistake looks a bit more forgivable. It over-estimated the integrity of some with whom it had signed contracts.

In the end, the EU’s hand was forced by impossibly-rising case-loads and a dearth of vaccines caused by other governments’ capriciousness: Italy, with more than 20,000 new cases a day needed the 250,000 doses promised to Australia more than Australia, with 10 new cases a day, did. Similarly, its decision not to forward the latest vaccine batch to Britain took into account the fact that, with vaccinations well advanced (partly enabled by its own vaccine nationalism), Britain has less need than the EU for available vaccines. The tragedy of these episodes is the trust that was destroyed.

Trust is a precious commodity, especially in a vulnerable world where economies are weakened and politics fractious. What with Brexit, Trump and Russian and Chinese sabre-rattling, perhaps the EU appreciated the importance of maintaining as much trust as possible between those it considered its friends and allies. Perhaps its evident reluctance to hoard was because it could see parallels between today’s vaccine hoarding and gold hoarding by erstwhile friends in the first half of the twentieth century – and has not forgotten the devastating consequences of that hoarding.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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