By Naomi Schoenfeld
(December 21) – As 2020 draws to a close, the COVID19 pandemic rages on, yet, undoubtedly, we have entered a distinct phase as a number of countries now begin or plan for mass distribution and administration of newly developed vaccines. As of this writing, there are six approved vaccines and over 50 candidates in development (Craven, 2020, WHO 2020). In the UK, the NHS recently started administering the Pfizer BioNTech mRNA vaccine, and the US followed suit one week later. COVID19 vaccine development has reinvigorated a certain type of vaccine nationalism not seen for decades. Each vaccine or candidate gets a particular pedigree, narrative and aura of trustworthiness according to its origins. The vaccines and candidates are a mix of private-sector developed or public/private partnership, with only a few candidates from universities or the public sector (WHO, 2020). In Cuba’s state-run socialist biopharmaceutical system, their new COVID19 vaccine, called Soberana or “The Sovereign,” is effortlessly enfolded into a long-standing national narrative of vaccine prowess.
The narrative of the “vaccine race” as constructed by Western media outlets contains echoes of Cold War-era themes like the space race or the rush of the superpowers to build the first atomic bombs. This narrative has emphasized, for example, a certain “untrustworthiness” of China’s vaccine and vaccine candidates, while the Russian vaccine candidates have been accused of “lack of transparency and poor data” (Cohen, 2020). Meanwhile, in the US and the UK, the multinational and private sector Pfizer and Moderna vaccines face an extra layer of skepticism beyond the expected “anti-vaxxer” sectors, particularly among both political conservatives and communities of color (Gordon and McGrath, 2020; Adam and Booth, 2020), due to the combination of novel vaccine type (mRNA) and the speed of development. Australia recently pulled its vaccine candidate over concerns it was causing false positive HIV test results (Ives, 2020). The global race to develop a COVID19 vaccine represented a virtually unprecedented level of coordination and cooperation in three key domains: scientific, regulatory, and political.