We’re all waiting for a coronavirus vaccine, but when Russia announced earlier this week that it would be the first country to approve one, nobody rejoiced. Scientists pointed out clinical testing wasn’t complete, the vaccine had been tested on fewer than 100 people. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he had “serious doubts” it would work. It was a transparent and potentially dangerous PR stunt. “It’s ridiculous,” the head of Russia’s Association of Clinical Research Organizations told the magazine Science, “I feel only shame for our country”.

The mysterious vaccine may turn out not to be dangerous. The technology is similar to several approved vaccines, and Russia has said its release will be limited to healthcare workers and other at-risk populations until further trials are completed. China similarly approved an in-trial vaccine for military use with essentially no fanfare. But it’s unlikely to work – most vaccines don’t. The point for Russia appears to be to pass off a limited-release in-trial vaccine as completed in order to score a little nationalistic dopamine hit. (The project is even named Sputnik V, suggesting it is a successor to the Soviet rockets that bested the US in the space race.)

This seems ridiculous, cartoonish even. Vladimir Putin claimed the treatment was safe because his daughter had taken it, as if his family were a proxy for the public. But before we go crying failed state, and ridicule its scientifically illiterate strongman, we should ask: is it really so different from Donald Trump calling the American Covid response the best in the world? Or the British government’s continued insistence it was about to hit testing numbers that took months to materialise? These responses are of a kind: a state fails, and then tells the people it’s a success.

The WHO last week warned against “vaccine nationalism”, noting that unless countries cooperate, an actually successful vaccine could touch off a worldwide frenzy. Similar to the scramble for PPE gear and testing reagents when governments seized exports, and the US reportedly tried to intercept other nation’s shipments at global ports, demand for vaccine supplies could result in another pitched battle for limited resources – with the added complication that no one knows which project will succeed, so no one is even sure what they’re trying to source yet.

And, while some vaccine projects have promised to make the results as cheap and widely available as possible, others are frighteningly marketised. A few weeks ago I spoke with a financial analyst who was positively giddy speculating that the leading US candidate – Moderna’s mRNA vaccine – could end up selling for more than $70 a dose worldwide, a price that would consign the world’s poorest countries to the back of the line, or out of the line altogether.

The WHO’s solution is to ask countries to join its Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) programme, one part of which is dedicated to funding open access research, and buying up stocks of vaccine to ensure equitable distribution. The project recently received $8bn from a group of EU nations, the Gates Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust. A heartening amount, but likely to be swamped by the waves of cash being thrown around by countries trying to go it alone. In the past month the US has inked or began talks for deals with Pfizer ($2bn), GlaxoSmithKline ($2.1bn), Moderna ($1.5bn), and AstraZeneca($1bn) to supply potential vaccines. The UK has signed six such deals, for a combined 340m potential doses, although the pricing isn’t yet known for all of them.

To call this vaccine nationalism seems unnecessary since every stage of the coronavirus crisis has been marked by resurgent nationalism; and by the states previously most invested in the idea of an interconnected world recoiling from it, thrashing about in anger when the system no longer seemed to serve their interests. Take for instance Trump’s sudden discovery that despite its immense wealth, the US doesn’t really make drugs (or gowns, or masks, or ventilators) any more.

But it is also part of a longer trend. International institutions such as the WHO, which have warned about potential pandemics and created initiatives around vaccine research and distribution and public health preparedness, haven’t been taken seriously or funded at a proper level for years. The groundwork needed for a truly cooperative international response to this crisis should have been laid long ago.

One of the most terrifying things in the early days of the pandemic was watching the richest and ostensibly most powerful countries in the world fumble their response through a combination of political malpractice and the effects of having let national institutions crumble for years. Meanwhile smaller countries, such as Vietnam and South Korea, have performed admirably. And yet, while we have a tendency to obsessively compare the outcomes, in the early stages it wasn’t a zero-sum game. Everyone could have been New Zealand.

If a vaccine really does mark the end of the crisis, it will be a particularly perverse tragedy if the very nations that have failed up until now manage to turn it into a zero-sum game in which the country with the most money buys the most vaccine – leaving everyone else shut out.

Stephen Buranyi is a writer specialising in science and the environment

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