We have to rid the world of vaccine nationalism. No one is protected until we are all protected. And we need, above all, solidarity to fight a virus which by its nature does not respect borders or boundaries. Over much of the last year, European Union officials, led by the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen, have led the world in grandiose rhetoric about how we have to lead a global effort to fight Covid-19, contrasting its own noble internationalism with the grubby self-interest of the likes of Donald Trump or indeed Boris Johnson. But hold on. After much speculation, the EU has itself started firing the first shots in the vaccine wars, permitting Italy to block the export of 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab to Australia. It turns out that when it comes to petty nationalism, the EU leads the world. Surely the point has come where global leaders, led by President Biden, should condemn its insularity.
By this point, AstraZeneca must be wishing it had never submitted its vaccine for approval in the EU, or entered into any contracts to sell it across the Continent. Given that it is not making any profit on the jab, the vaccine has surely been more hassle than it is worth. There have been delays in approval, several countries refused to allow it to be administered to the over-65s on no scientific evidence, and export controls were imposed by the Commission after it took a little longer than expected to ramp up production. Now with the whole of Europe lagging woefully behind Israel, the UK, the US, and even countries such as Morocco and Turkey, those powers have been invoked to stop AZ exporting doses to Australia.
Really? It is hard to see any moral justification for that. Are Italian lives more important than Australian ones? Does AstraZeneca, as a private company, not have the right to sell its products wherever it wants as long as it is doing so lawfully? In a fit of spite, and amid rising infection rates and death tolls, even as they are falling in countries that were a bit quicker off the mark in getting vaccines approved, the EU has started to lash out, blaming everyone else for its failings, but never itself. For the EU, its own people come first, and no one else matters.
And yet, that is surely a very aggressive escalation. In truth, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, President Joe Biden, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga, and of course the UKs Boris Johnson, should get together with the World Health Organisation to condemn the Italian decision. It is one thing to accelerate your own production facilities to make sure your own people get the vaccine at least as quickly as anyone else. That is just responsible government. It is another thing to stop shipments abroad completely. To ban the export of life saving medicines to another country is surely unacceptable behaviour on the part of the EU – and the global community needs to make that absolutely clear.