Matthew Lynn has narrated this article for you to listen to.
Armed guards are patrolling the perimeter fence of a sleek factory. Software experts are fending off hackers. Border officials are checking trucks and ferries, not for weapons or illegal immigrants, but for a mysterious biochemical soup, while spies and spin doctors are feeding social media with scare stories flaming one national champion or another. Welcome to the first great geopolitical battle of the 21st century. It may sound like something ripped from the pages of a dystopian sci-fi novel, but in truth we’re seeing the opening salvos in the vaccine wars.
Rather than co-operating with one another to roll out a global vaccination campaign to rid the world of Covid-19, the major powers of the world are instead descending into a fierce, increasingly nationalistic competition. The EU is threatening to hold back supplies from Britain, the Americans are scooping up supplies wherever they can, and the Russians and the Chinese are engaged in a form of ‘vial diplomacy’ reminiscent of the Cold War. It is all starting to turn very, very nasty. We are seeing how quickly our globalised world collapses when push comes to shove. The effect of all this on national security, on industrial policy and on the movement of people around the world will be felt for many years to come.
Rewind just a few weeks, and it all looked very different. First Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, then Moderna and then Oxford-AstraZeneca unveiled one success after another. When the Covid pandemic began a year ago, lots of experts warned that it might take ten years or more to develop an effective, safe vaccine. Nor was it ever going to be easy: keep in mind that some of the biggest drugs companies in the world — France’s Sanofi, for example, and Merck of the US, Pfizer’s great rival — failed at the first or second hurdle.