What Is Vaccine Nationalism?

Vaccine nationalism is when wealthier nations stock up on coronavirus vaccines while poorer nations go without access. It is the literal application of political ideologies like “America First” to the fight against COVID19.

Vaccine nationalism allows wealthier nations to prioritize domestic development and implementation of vaccines at other nations’ expense. The problem with vaccine nationalism is that the pandemic is not a national problem – it is a global problem. If a government successfully secures one country’s population from the virus with its vaccine, but not all other countries, then the pre-pandemic normal remains unsecured. If the virus remains endemic anywhere, it remains a threat everywhere.


Global leaders recognized the threat of vaccine nationalism early in the efforts for vaccine development. They developed the COVAX program to coordinate a worldwide effort to secure and implement a COVID19 vaccine.

COVAX is an international alliance whose goal is to ensure all countries receive equal access to vaccines. COVAX set a goal of inoculating at least 20% of the population of each participating nation. More than 180 countries signed on to the COVAX initiative, but notable higher-income nations like the United States and Russia did not.

Nations like the US and Russia financially backed the successful development of vaccines among companies like AstraZeneca and Novavax. COVAX did the same but on a much smaller scale. In return, AstraZeneca and Novavax have promised COVAX hundreds of millions of doses.

The US chose not to be a part of COVAX due to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) involvement. President-elect Joe Biden said the US would resume cooperation with the WHO once he takes office, but he has not guaranteed US participation with COVAX. Additionally, many wealthier countries that are part of COVAX are simultaneously pursuing their own deals and agreements for independent domestic vaccine efforts, thereby countering the purposes of COVAX.

COVAX relies upon principles of cooperation and global achievement rather than individual nation achievement with the vaccine efforts. Multiple studies have shown that a coordinated international effort to develop a vaccine will be more efficient and cost-effective globally even while it produces short term opportunity costs in individual nations. Securing vaccines on a country-by-country basis takes longer and delays a return to normal for the entire world system.

Why Vaccine Nationalism Fails

Nations like the United States spent billions in 2020 toward developing their own vaccine, separate from COVAX and most cooperative global efforts. This expenditure and unprecedented speed of research and achievement are worthy of celebration and reasonably considered a “moonshot” moment for this generation.

But even as Americans line up for the vaccines in recent weeks, the global economy is still on pause. Even if American workers and business leaders are vaccinated, the global economy which fuels American wealth has not moved out of social distancing and lockdown mode. The other countries cannot do so until the vaccine arrives in other parts of the world. Therefore, the economy cannot return to its pre-pandemic levels, and the financial investment into the vaccine cannot reap its full reward.

Vaccine nationalism produces short-term and local results that reward political leaders, but that strategy does not address the longer-term global needs. The COVID19 fight endures. Until a global solution is found, the pandemic’s economic and geopolitical repercussions will continue to worsen. Ultimately vaccine nationalism allows a subjective political framework to resolve an objective scientific problem. It cannot work.

Current Status

Many poorer nations may successfully vaccinate as much as 20% of their populations by the end of spring in 2021. Meanwhile, some of the world’s wealthiest nations reserved enough vaccines (before production) to vaccinate their populations five times over. If all the doses they have claimed are delivered, the European Union could inoculate its residents twice, Britain and the United States could do so four times over, and Canada six times over.

It could take many lower-income countries until 2024 before they secure enough vaccines to immunize their populations. Trade and supply chains would remain disrupted by the pandemic until that occurs. Domestic political pressures could upend nations across the globe and initiate a cascade of effects and countereffects from the pandemic in the interim.

 Additional Reading

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JB Shreve is the author of "How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos." He has been the host of the End of History podcast since 2012. He has degrees in International Relations and Middle East Studies. His other books include the Intelligence Brief Series. Regular posts and updates from JB Shreve are available at www.theendofhistory.net