The term vaccine nationalism is quickly becoming a vague phrase with multiple definitions. A Science magazine op-ed from July wanted to push the tired old liberal claim that limited vaccine supplies would be kept for just the “rich” countries. Another type of vaccine nationalism is found in the national pride of domestic biomedical organizations being able to make their own vaccines. Add Russia and India to that list, along with China. However, for all of them, safety and efficacy remain significant question marks. For the purposes of this article, we introduce a third definition which derives from the second. This vaccine nationalism forces people to use the vaccine from their country. On this, China is leading the way – but not for long.
A report from PJ Media describes a unique move made by the Chinese government. Do you want to go to China? You get a visa from the Chinese government only if you get vaccinated with a Covid-19 vaccine made in China. The problem for foreigners is that Chinese vaccines (5 types so far) have not been approved in any other countries, nor have Chinese health authorities released any data from their clinical trials. They only give public assurances that the vaccines work. Even the World Health Organization has not approved any of the Chinese vaccines. Yet there is China requiring foreigners to take their potentially unsafe product. Some things never change.
While some policy makers have been arguing over the ethics of “vaccine passports”, they have overlooked a bigger problem. China’s move could trigger an international fight over competing vaccine passports. Which one would prevail? Which one could a given country reject or accept? Even though China has made a first move of sorts, the lack of WHO approval could stop them.
While the Chinese government maintains 78% efficacy with the Sinovac version, a clinical trial in Brazil only found 58%. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine would fall somewhere in the middle. There is another point to consider here. Those who steal technology are not as good at the technology as those who create it. Russia has stolen many computer chips, even reverse engineered them, but they still have no domestic microelectronic industry. China is not much better. The same argument applies to biomedical processes and products. So, expect China to come out with inferior versions of things like Covid vaccines because, in a manner of speaking, you can’t own what you steal.
For the purposes of building China’s domestic economy, theft of our technology may suffice. But as the technology evolves, if they do not have the kind of cultural commitment to innovation and improvement needed to remain competitive, they will fall behind.
Hence, there will come a point where this so called diplomatic gambit requiring injection with a Chinese made vaccine for a travel visa will fail. They won’t keep up with improvements by other countries. Moreover, China’s ability to function internationally could be affected by other countries deciding to retaliate by demanding their own or some other vaccine qualify a Chinese traveler for entry into their country. Reportedly, an international biomedical consortium called Quad, which is composed of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia promises to flank Chinese efforts at forcing export of their vaccines. The consortium reportedly plans to make and distribute some one billion doses by 2022. Australia, in particular, is an underestimated and overlooked player in vaccine technology. They have considerable bioprocessing capabilities for producing large quantities of vaccines.
By this point, the concept of vaccine nationalism is beginning to look more like a pretzel and less like a concept. Who will you listen to? Who will you believe? Reputation will count, and here the Chinese will have a real international problem. China is proving itself to be a bad actor on the world stage. They are out of step with the rest of the world even though they see themselves as the ascendant power. Their version of vaccine nationalism is just one example of how the world is losing faith in them.