After nearly a year of waging a “war” on the coronavirus, many countries are poised to declare victory. Britain, which today became the first country to roll out the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, dubbed the start of its immunization program “V-Day,” echoing the language used to commemorate its win in World War II. Elsewhere, China and Russia have already begun distributing their own state-backed vaccines for domestic use. And although the United States has yet to grant regulatory approval to any of the vaccine candidates, Donald Trump was quick to claim the spate of positive vaccine news as his own.
Many of these vaccines, and the ongoing trials for potential alternatives, have benefited from huge levels of government investment—much of it coming from wealthy countries determined to secure their spot at the front of the line for when the vaccines are finally ready. To that end, billions of doses were reserved before any had been approved for use, with many countries claiming enough to inoculate their population several times over.
This “vaccine nationalism,” in which countries prioritize their domestic needs at the expense of others, may have helped accelerate efforts to develop such drugs, but it is already showing its limits. With wealthy countries claiming the lion’s share of prospective doses for themselves, and with global efforts to equalize vaccine distribution facing enduring unilateralism and limited resources, a coronavirus vaccine returning the world to something resembling “normal” could take considerable time—perhaps even longer than it needs to. (Many of the governments warning against the unilateral approach are striking their own bilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers, in an apparent effort to have it both ways.) Without equal vaccine distribution, public-health experts warn, the pandemic could continue to live on residually for years, bringing with it even more death and further economic collapse. If the virus remains endemic anywhere, it will continue to pose a threat everywhere.