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Paul Vallely: PM’s vaccine gamble has paid off

05 February 2021

He should now lead on helping poorer nations, says Paul Vallely


Boris Johnson is shown how to prepare a vaccine injection during a visit to a vaccination centre in Batley, West Yorkshire, on Monday

Boris Johnson is shown how to prepare a vaccine injection during a visit to a vaccination centre in Batley, West Yorkshire, on Monday

THE row between AstraZeneca and the European Union — in which Brussels threatened to introduce a hard Irish border to block vaccine exports to the UK — has thrown a new phrase into the political lexicon: vaccine nationalism. This derogatory term describes the determination of rich countries to inoculate their populations before allowing vaccines to go abroad to help others. But is vaccine nationalism always a bad thing?

The Government of Boris Johnson has an inglorious record on the current pandemic. It sent old people from hospitals back to their care homes without checking for the Covid virus. It bungled the orders for protective equipment for medics, dished out lucrative contracts to Conservative cronies, and failed to put in place an effective Test and Trace operation. But it has had one glorious success: on vaccinations.

In April, Mr Johnson placed his vaccine task force in the hands of a redoubtable venture capitalist and biochemist, Kate Bingham. She swiftly scoped out potential manufacturers, did the due diligence on them, and checked out factories to ensure that they could produce on the scale that they had promised. She then signed deals for hundreds of millions of doses — three months before the lumbering bureaucrats of the EU appeared on the horizon. She even started building one factory in Oxford before planning permission was complete. Today, the UK has vaccinated around 15 per cent of its population, while Germany and France have managed less than three per cent.

Various factors govern deals between drug companies and governments. One is how many doses they contract to buy even before the drug has been tested. Another is whether they fund research and development. The UK Government committed £1.67 billion to buying Covid vaccines before it was known whether they would be effective. That is seven times more per capita than Brussels. Britain spent more even per head than America.

Such a system transfers risk from the company to the government. Mr Johnson is a gambler. Sadly, too many of his bets have failed in this pandemic, especially where his gamble was to do nothing. But the risks that he took on vaccines paid off triumphally.

In contrast, the EU tried to play it safe, waiting until it became clearer which vaccines were most promising. It tried then to bargain for the best price and took too much time about it, repeating the old mistakes of the pre-pandemic era when economic efficiency was put before resilience. It was piggybacking on the risks taken by others.

The plain fact is that, if vaccine nationalists such as the UK and the US had not set out to secure an advantage, there would be fewer vaccines around than there are today, and less manufacturing capacity to produce them.

Of course, there is a downside to this. Because they were not sure which vaccines would succeed, rich nations are now in a position in which they have secured many more doses than necessary to inoculate their populations.

A conflict now arises between vaccine nationalism and global justice. Rich governments have made commitments to two international schemes to work towards the purchase and delivery of vaccines to the world’s poor nations. So far, only $7 billion of the necessary $25 billion has been committed. Britain should now lead the way on that, too.

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