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Tensions with Europe over Covid vaccine supply may no longer make headlines, but vaccination nationalism persists
The UK government has been severely criticized for many aspects of its response to the Covid pandemic, but the success of its vaccination strategy is clear to all. More than 13 million people have now received the first dose of a Covid shot – more than Germany, France and Italy combined – and the government is on track to meet its goal of providing some level of protection to the most vulnerable in society. However, the UK's success has not come without incident. A nasty row with the European Union over the supply of Covid injections last month suggests that the UK government and the pharmaceutical sector must be ready to allow vaccination nationalism to become an increasingly normalized form of power politics, at least until the supply can meet global demand.
While the EU renounced the brink of a diplomatic row with the UK in late January over restricting exports of Covid vaccines to Northern Ireland, the message was clear: even the EU, a bastion of the rules-based world order and ally of the UK, was ready to negotiate a hard-won international agreement when the supply of Covid jabs was at stake.
Vaccine nationalism is not new or unexpected in a situation where demand far exceeds supply. Similar patterns of behavior were seen before during the pandemic when China tried to use its supplies of scarce personal protective equipment to advance its own foreign policy interests, and US buyers reportedly picked up shipments of Chinese masks destined for France in Shanghai. airportBut while the UK has previously scrambled to buy PPE in the pandemic, it now finds itself in a position of relative strength in Covid vaccines, having approved three shots produced by BioNTech / Pfizer. , Oxford / AstraZeneca and Moderna. Thanks to early steps to establish national production and supply lines, the UK is now ahead of many countries in the race to reopen its devastated shutdown economy.
The UK is also in a strong position to use its vaccine stockpile to achieve other foreign policy goals: perhaps for its trade doctrine of 'Global Britain'. support or to strengthen its soft power capabilities in the South of the world, some of which are members of the Commonwealth. On a defensive level, this means the UK is less vulnerable to being thrown over a barrel by countries with vaccine stockpiles.
Vaccine nationalism is also affecting the pharmaceutical industry and the UK government's involvement with it. During a session of the Health and Social Care Committee in late January, Sir Simon Stevens, the NHS chief executive, said he hoped pharmaceuticals would build more resilient domestic supply chains that could ensure the smooth manufacturing and distribution of new and innovative drugs . In his words: “Very extensive supply chains are not necessarily good for you”.
What makes this potential shift significant is that global supply chains have been an integral part of the process of creating new drugs for more than 40 years. The language used here is a new form of "drug protectionism" that would aim to protect the life sciences industry from international instability. The Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industries' response to the International Trade Committee in Covid-19 also appears to be reflecting on the need to resilienceFrom supply chains that combine UK manufacturing of key medicines and targeted stockpiling measures.
But the onshoring of drug production comes with its own risks. Untangling the pharmaceutical industry's international supply chains will be incredibly complicated – from the raw materials used in medicines to manufacturing and distribution, they are highly specialized and spread around the world.
This trend of onshoring domestic production also appears to be spreading around the world. President Joe Biden has pledged to bring drug manufacturing to the US shores by addressing the provisions of the tax law that prompt drug manufacturers to move their manufacturing from America to countries with lower tax regimes.
The government may try to enact new legislation, similar to America, that includes a package of tax incentives and subsidies that help boost domestic drug production. A new £ 200 million Life Sciences investment program is just the beginning, and it is likely that we will see a series of new policy initiatives in the coming years that further demonstrate the UK's commitment to onshoring drug manufacturing. All this shows that vaccination nationalism is becoming the new norm.
Nabil Rastani is Dods Senior Political Adviser on Health and International Trade