Covid Vaccine Nationalism Raises Concern

08.03.2021 - With the race to vaccinate populations against Covid-19 going full steam, health agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Serum Institute of India (SIL), world’s largest vaccine maker, have raised alarm that nationalism and protectionism could lead to an international vaccine trade war that in particular could disadvantage countries with insufficient resources.

Up to now, the saber rattling has taken place mostly in the developed world. After last year’s hijacking of Asian-made personal protective equipment shipments bound for Europe by US black market resellers, tensions more recently have flared up over more sophisticated, though no less blunt, protection instruments.

The first volleys were fired Europe in January, when the EU’s fears that Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca could ship doses made in Belgium to the UK after it cut deliveries to the 27-member bloc, triggered a near-ban on vaccine exports. The new mechanism requires the exporting company to apply for authorization to the government of the member state where the doses were made. The US has also introduced measures that commentators say also smack of protectionism.

The EU’s new export rule was tested last week, when the Italian government blocked the shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia.  Subsequently, France suggested it could also block exports. "We are closely discussing with Italians, as well as with all our European partners to have a European approach on the issue," said health minister Olivier Véran. New Italian prime minister and former European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, previously had urged the European Commission to crack down on vaccine makers that fail to deliver on promised supplies.

The affected plant at Anagni, Italy owned by US CDMO Catalent, is handling fill & finish for AstraZeneca and has also contracted to help produce the Johnson & Johnson shot recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Several other American CDMOs are under contract to produce vaccine ingredients or handle fill & finish for US vaccine producers in Europe.

Criticizing the EU’s export restriction scheme, John Denton, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce, said that though he understands the pressure Europe is under, “blocking exports to meet domestic vaccination targets is a very dangerous card for policymakers to play. The challenge of getting vaccines to everyone, everywhere, without delay, will only be met through a collaborative global effort to scale manufacturing and speed distribution efforts,” he stressed.

Elsewhere, criticism is being leveled at new US president Joe Biden, who is leveraging wartime legislation (dating from the Korean conflict) to block exports of ingredients and equipment that can be used to make vaccines. An unintended side effect of both this and the European mechanism is that they could potentially hamper multinational US companies making vaccines abroad as well as CDMOs contributing to their efforts in other countries.

In January, the Biden administration said it would leverage the "full power" of the Defense Production Act to secure supplies for the production of Covid shots for the American effort, including Pfizer/BioNTech’s Comirnaty. The initial plan called for prioritizing for the US market products that could cause vaccine production bottlenecks, including glass vials, stoppers, syringes, needles and fill & finish capacity. The restrictions have now been  extended to other materials, such as bags and filters.

At a World Bank panel on vaccines held on Mar.4, Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of India’s SIL, which has contracted to produce hundreds of millions of vaccines for AstraZeneca and Novavax –  the latter does not yet have an approved candidate –  slammed the US plans, which he said could interfere with world inoculation efforts. “There are already shortfalls of vials, glass, plastic and stoppers required to produce these vaccines,” Poonawalla noted. “Sharing of critical raw materials is going to become a critical limiting factor.”

Another member of the panel, WHO chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, pointed to the need for a global agreement “not to do export bans.” She said the organization’s vaccine partners, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations and the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network, will hold meetings this week to discuss the issues.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist