No one wins from a vaccine trade war

Nick Reid

One of the most remarkable, yet barely noticed, features of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the extent to which global pharmaceutical supply chains have held up. In the face of almost unprecedented spikes in demand, those involved in the day to day manufacturing and distribution of medicines, working pretty much 24/7, have performed heroically over the last 12 months.

The ability of pharma companies to get their medicines, particularly those used in ICUs, and now vaccines around the world has been critical to hospitals and health systems around the world.

The foundation of their ability to do this has been a rules-based international trading system.

Beyond a number of limited examples, very few export and other trade restrictions have been implemented by governments, which has been very welcome.

The certainty that this provides means that companies can quickly respond to demand in one market by ramping up supply from another, safe in the knowledge that nothing is going to get in the way of their ability to do this.

But is consensus around rules-based trade now unravelling in front of our eyes?

Over recent weeks the threats and counter-threats, both official and anonymously sourced, between the UK and EU over the vaccine supply have continued to grow.

We’ve seen EU officials threatening to block supplies leaving the EU for the UK, we’ve seen UK sources saying they’d block the supply of lipids produced in Yorkshire and used in the Pfizer vaccine being produced in Puurs, Belguim.

Posturing like this by anyone, however, does not help us tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

The interconnected nature of supply chains, and their global spread, is a huge advantage for everyone. Companies can respond quicky and efficiently to changes in demand, problems in one market can be corrected from another, and the overall cost of manufacturing medicines is reduced.

To potentially undermine all this at a time of medical emergency, is nonsensical and does no one any good. If the whole system falls apart, we will all lose and we’ll see more avoidable deaths because of this failure of leadership.

At the centre of this whole situation are companies like AZ, Moderna, Pfizer and many others who are now in a rather invidious position.

It’s their scientists who have miraculously taken a vaccine from conception to manufacture in less than a year, only to see others now trying to interfere in their distribution, regardless of their contractual and commercial agreements.

What message does this send to companies who have bent over backwards to tackle the greatest health crisis of our generation?

For the same reason, discussions around self-sufficiency and onshoring are also misguided. Around 12,000 different medicines are supplied to the NHS and it would be impossible, not to mention monstrously expensive, for the UK to produce all of these here.

Perhaps efforts, particularly in the EU member states, could be more productively directed at talking up the safety and importance of vaccines, instead of undermining critical public health messaging. Indeed, polling this week showing huge levels of (unfounded) concern about the safety of the AZ vaccine should concern us all, whilst a study released today in the US has shown that it is 100% effective at preventing serious illness.

What we need to happen is for cool heads to prevail and for leaders across the world to recognise that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic and whilst there is hope on the horizon, until we are all out of it, no one is out of it.

Nick Reid

Director – Public Affairs

Prior to joining ENGINE MHP, Nick was a member of Pfizer’s public affairs team in the UK where he led the organisation’s engagement with the UK Government around Brexit and international trade.