Author : Dhriti Kamdar

Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Jun 27, 2020

The EU’s push for multilateralism on developing a vaccine against COVID-19 comes amidst fraying international relations

Fractured multilateralism and the search for COVID19 vaccine

Countries around the world are struggling to contain the unprecedented outbreak of COVID-19. International organisations such as the World Health Organisations (WHO), the United Nations (UN), and the World Bank are committed towards helping nations in containing the virus, however, no progress on a definitive cure or vaccine is in sight. As a result, the European Union (EU) convened an emergency virtual conference on May 4 with the aim of stimulating global efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. With representation from over 40 countries, the three-hour long meeting ended with about $8.2 billion being raised from governments, philanthropies and private sector dedicated to provide aid towards medical research only. This would also include efforts towards producing drugs, formulating vaccines and providing testing kits to combat the virus that has infected over 5.5 million people of the world’s population. This multilateral initiative, allowing scientists worldwide to develop and produce a vaccine for COVID-19 reflects immense promise. However, it comes at a time of increased turbulence in international relations.

The United States was missing in action 

Multilateral institutions are key but the broad-based international coordination that was mostly seen in previous global crises now remains absent, and it’s holding the world back from a solution. The world’s biggest economy — the United States, has focused exclusively on itself — making it extremely difficult for the world to devise a global response.

For that same, US President Donald Trump did not attend the virtual summit led by the EU. His absence raised doubts whether the Trump administration supports a global effort for the development and universal deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine. Two senior administration officials made the ‘America First’ focus clear in a briefing by stating that the United States is already leading research efforts and has funded billions of dollars into the development of a vaccine for the country

The virtual fundraiser included people from organisations that had previously come in disagreement with Trump over his administration’s response to the pandemic. For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and its Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has had a testy relationship with the US president. Ever since President Trump has gone on a public tirade against the WHO, the US has refrained from attending major global conferences convened solely as a response to COVID-19. For instance, the G20 session organised by the WHO in late March and the first EU-led summit — The Alliance for Multilateralism in mid- April. The primary aim was to promote global cooperation in the face of rising nationalism, isolationism and to muster support for international organisations.

Jeremy Konyndyk, who worked on the Ebola response in the Obama administration, Said - “this is the first time where the United States has been absent in a major conference for a global crisis.” He further added, since it is unknown which research is most likely to succeed in a vaccine, it is crucial to back multiple efforts working in parallel.

The United States is currently leading in terms of  COVID-19 cases in the world. Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy approach of undercutting global governance on the matter is one central reason behind the same. Moreover, by isolating itself from the world, US has also made global coordination extremely difficult. The lack of solidarity is costing the world essential time, money, and lives at the hands of United States.  

COVID- 19 puts EU’s solidarity to test

The efforts made by the EU leaders show the way forward. EU’s delayed attempt at international coordination a rare demonstration of global leadership. A sense of lack of international cooperation is seen as countries adopt divergent measures and are often competing with other countries is containing the spread.

The EU might have taken the first steps in leading a global fundraiser for vaccine developments, but it has failed to get its own member states in agreement over health and economic measures in responding to the ongoing pandemic. Last month, European finance ministers agreed on committing  half a trillion euros of new measures towards boost their economies against the onslaught of the outbreak, but it was not approved by all the 27 member nations. The worst hit members — Italy and Spain, have been advocating for Brussels to issue joint debt bonds. However, wealthier northern European countries like Norway and the Netherlands have been reluctant to subsidise debt for the already debt-ridden countries of the south.

The half trillion Euro bailout might have looked like an accomplishment, but is beginning to look very incoherent due to the continued focus of the wealthier nations on ‘austerity measures’. Moreover, as EU’s wealthier nations continue to stand in the way, the worst hit nations will have no choice but to consider risky assistance and investments from countries like China.

"The half trillion Euro bailout might have looked like an accomplishment, but is beginning to look very incoherent due to the continued focus of the wealthier nations on ‘austerity measures’."

Nativism within its own borders and the slow-walked assistance to its own worst hit member countries would not only affect the EU economy, but also affect its credibility to lead the multilateral effort towards a COVID-19 vaccine.

International race against time

Five months into the pandemic, countries have been racing against time to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Countries like the US, China, India and the UK have started clinical trials in laboratories. Besides individual efforts taken by the countries, the $8.2 billion pledged in the recent summit will aid research, production and distribution of a future vaccine and possible treatments to fight the virus. The Alliance for Multilateralism will ensure international organisations get the support it requires to contain the pandemic and will see to it all nations have equal access to the future vaccine.

Despite these global efforts, predicting which vaccine will work is critical to assess.  As per Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. government’s top expert, even if everything is on track, developing a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months. Like every other unknown virus, finding a vaccine, and concurrently a treatment, is challenging. But until a vaccine is developed, resurgent waves of infections are likely to recur. According to Melinda Gates the pandemic will not end until countries develop herd immunity against it. Else, a vaccine is the only solution.

"According to Melinda Gates the pandemic will not end until countries develop herd immunity against it. Else, a vaccine is the only solution."

Hence, countries need to recognise the severity of the health crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To this end, a collective and joint response is the only answer.  EU was successful in bringing countries in a coalition, but there lacks cooperation within its own member-states.. Compounding the situation of course is the United States’ abdication of its traditional agenda-setter role.

As a result, while countries struggle to come together , the world is suffering and as long as the virus is present somewhere, it continues to be a threat to the entire world.

Dhriti Kamdar is an intern with ORF Mumbai.

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Dhriti Kamdar

Dhriti Kamdar

Dhriti Kamdar was a Research Intern at the Observer Research Foundation. ...

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