Vaccine nationalism could backfire on America

Failure to diversify technologically and collaborate effectively may delay vaccine access

August 12, 2020 6:01 am

(Getty Images)

As the number of COVID-19 cases tops 20 million worldwide, scientists are racing to find a vaccine. Many countries are collaborating. America, by and large, is not.

Vaccine development has long been a globalized process. Between research, procurement of materials and manufacturing, vaccine production all but requires regional cooperation. Especially for a new disease like COVID-19, globalization is imperative to quick success.

To this end, there are eight primary techniques in development, with over 165 potential COVID-19 vaccines being tested worldwide. Thirty candidates are in clinical testing, eight are in phase III clinical testing and two are approved. Neither approval is currently recommended for commercial use.

Despite global efforts, only a handful of nations are directly involved in current phase III vaccine development: Four are based in China (traditional inactivated viruses and viral vector technologies), one is based in the United States (a novel genetic technology), one in the United Kingdom (viral vector technology with U.S. investment), one in Germany (a novel genetic technology) and one in Australia (repurposed vaccine). Each nation has generally focused on a single technique in early candidates, with the exception of China’s multiple technical approaches, making the need for global cooperation all the more relevant. There is simply no way to confirm which, if any, of the vaccine candidates will work until testing is complete.

This is where the Trump administration failed to grasp vaccine technology and strategy accordingly. By pursuing vaccine nationalism without effectively compensating for our lack of collaboration, the United States currently has only one vaccine technology in phase III testing. Moreover, the technology America is pursuing is new, as opposed to more traditional inactivated vaccine technologies like China’s. It’s a risky gamble, a sort of pandemic equivalent of failing to diversify a financial portfolio. Scientists noted this oversight early on when the Trump administration left out key researchers as part of “Operation Warp Speed,” but the administration didn’t listen.

Alas, the best case scenario is our narrowed approach pays off, though the United States will still face significant challenges amidst our lack of global cooperation. In perhaps the worst case scenario, our novel vaccine technologies fail to meet clinical standards, and China — a nation Republicans have hurled nefarious attacks against for years — produces the most efficacious early vaccine. China then reaps the geopolitical rewards, possibly adding years to America’s recovery as scientists scramble to replicate the effective vaccine.

Surely, there are concerns with any vaccine tested by only one country. Given the political incentives to place first, pressures could serve to add undue influence on outcomes or in pushing boundaries of ethical human testing. America’s approach of vaccine nationalism has only exacerbated this issue by reducing shared access to the data and failing to facilitate multi-country testing.

Regretfully, the Trump administration and Republican leaders continue to hamstring American partnerships. In addition to withdrawing from the World Health Organization and refusing to participate in securing ethical vaccine access globally, the 2020 election cycle has spurred the National Republican Senate Committee to levy attacks on China, asking candidates to join in a national messaging strategy of “Don’t defend Trump … attack China.”

Colorado Republicans heeded this call dutifully. In recent months Sen. Cory Gardner, Rep. Ken Buck and Rep. Doug Lamborn have all boosted hits on China, ranging from silence to amplification for the president’s “Kung Flu” and “China plague” remarks, denying cooperation with China in Operation Warp Speed, support for banning TikTok and accusations of Chinese hacking without direct evidence. Coupled with actions such as Trump trying to buy out a German vaccine firm, America has sent a strong message to the rest of the world that we are not prepared to collaborate effectively. While it is unwise to operate independently during a global pandemic, it is particularly unwise to provoke the nation leading in solutions — especially when only for short-term campaign gains.

By recklessly insulating America, unnecessarily provoking China, and failing to diversify our vaccine technology approach, Republican leaders have jeopardized our national security. As a swing state, Colorado elected officials should be held to a higher standard in efforts against extreme polarization. Colorado Republicans have utterly failed, kowtowing to an anti-science administration. This is a political extreme that simply doesn’t belong in our periwinkle state, particularly as Colorado is home to over 30 federal science laboratories.

The administration we elect in November will oversee the future of COVID-19 vaccine development and distribution in 2021 and beyond. If we re-elect imprudent vaccine nationalism, the U.S. will continue to lag behind. Coloradans are uniquely poised to shift the national balance toward global cooperation. We should do it.

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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.