It’s kind of a domino effect: One country’s crisis is every country’s crisis. Because what happens in India doesn’t stay there—not just with variants, but also with vaccines. If India can’t act as the pharmacy of the world, then other countries suffer too.
Hamblin: Is there a country in the world that has a ton of vaccines and could help out?
Higgins: Yeah, how many extra doses does the United States have?
Serhan: Duke University’s Institute of Global Health has done a lot of work tracking vaccine procurement and manufacturing. And what they found is that the U.S. has secured more doses than it will ever need. [According to] its most recent report, even if you take out the doses that the U.S. will likely need for booster shots and to vaccinate children when they become eligible, the U.S. could have as many as three hundred million surplus doses by the end of July.
Higgins: And that’s what you call vaccine nationalism—when one country is, at the expense of other countries, just looking out for themselves.
Serhan: Exactly. The way that I think about vaccine nationalism is like the instructions on a plane for when the cabin pressure drops and oxygen masks fall in front of you: “Put your mask on before helping others.”
The way that predominantly wealthy countries have kind of done this, they’ve basically said: “We’re going to put on our own mask; we’re going to take care of ourselves first and vaccinate our population. But we’re also going to take some of these other oxygen masks on the plane, just in case. We may not need to use them, but we’re just going to keep them.”
And there are a finite number of masks, just as there are a finite number of vaccines.
Higgins: That is a really horrifying metaphor.
Serhan: It’s the way I’ve figured out to drive home the fact. Because to hear that wealthy countries “hedged their bets and bought a lot of doses because they have that purchasing power” doesn’t quite drill home the impact that has on countries who didn’t have that purchasing power and who couldn’t purchase those doses.
Higgins: Are there examples of other countries stepping in and offering to help?
Serhan: Well, India was one of those countries doing a lot of “vaccine diplomacy,” as it’s come to be known. Russia and China have also been quite aggressively sending their doses around the world for free, or at a very cheap price. Other countries, predominantly those in Europe or the United States, have largely stayed out of this game. And the main reason given is that they have doses, but they don’t have enough of them. In the meantime, other countries like China and Russia are stepping in and filling that void.
Hamblin: What about export controls on the materials that go into making vaccines? Could more be done to support India’s manufacturing?
Serhan: Definitely. Both India and South Africa appealed to the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive rules around intellectual-property protections for patents and regulatory data, which would basically allow other countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines and therapies without fear of being sued. This is an appeal that’s been supported by around a hundred mostly developing countries, several former leaders, and even some U.S. lawmakers.