International Affairs and Public Health Experts Explore Efficacy of Vaccine Diplomacy

On March 16, 2022, the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, hosted a special edition of its “Beyond the Headlines” (BtH) series during which leading public health and international affairs experts discussed the efficacy of vaccine diplomacy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The discussion was led by Kevin Gallagher, Pardee School Professor of Global Development Policy and Director of the Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center), and featured Nahid Bhadelia, Founding Director of BU’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases (CEID) and Associate Director at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), as well as Mark Storella, Pardee School Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy, as discussants.

According to the panelists, vaccine diplomacy – the competitive practice of using international vaccine distribution as a means of building influence and global capital – and the global health response to COVID-19 have not been successful as much of the world still remains unvaccinated and has been forced to rely on infection to build immunity, which has cost innumerable lives. As Storella noted, the pandemic came at a time when United States-China relations were increasingly tense, climate change continued to pose an existential global threat, and migration issues plagued many parts of the world. These and other challenges created an environment of distrust in the global community that failed in a coordinated, multilateral response to the spreading virus.

As vaccines to fight COVID-19 began development, the international community saw what Storella described as “vaccine nationalism,” in which the U.S., Europe, Russia, Cuba, and other richer countries began buying up vaccine supplies to service their own populations. Eventually, competition developed as countries with vast stores made promises to supply developing countries with vaccines; however, speakers stated that many of these promises were either empty attempts at good press or came with unnecessary stipulations.

Dependence on international vaccine assistance has not proven beneficial to many developing countries, and so panelists discussed an alternative that would expand availability to vaccines: Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement waivers. TRIPS waivers would temporarily waive intellectual property rights protections for technologies needed to prevent, contain, or treat COVID-19, including vaccines and vaccine-related technologies. As Bhadelia argued, the waiver is necessary but not sufficient; in addition to having permission to manufacture vaccines, countries need the tech know-how to develop them properly, especially an understanding of mRNA, which Moderma sees as proprietary technology. Even though the World Health Organization (WHO) has set up technology sharing hubs to accelerate development, Bhadelia stated that pharmaceutical companies need to be more on board to share their technology.

The event concluded with a question and answer period, during which panelists fielded audience questions on the role private companies can play in vaccine diplomacy, how the world’s wealthiest countries can help bolster the healthcare infrastructure of developing countries, how vaccine diplomacy has impacted the global balance of power, and efforts to universally boost global health systems.

A recording of the event can be viewed above or on the Pardee School’s YouTube channel.

Beyond the Headlines is a regular series at the Pardee School that seeks to cultivate informed conversations among experts and practitioners on issues that are currently in the news headlines, but to do so with a focus on intellectual analysis and on longer-range trends. Recent Beyond the Headlines discussions have focused on topics including global perception of U.S. presidential elections, civil-military relations, BrexitInternational Women’s Day, and the crisis in Kashmir.