Listen: The Consequences of Vaccine Nationalism

Hamblin: It seems to me we’re sort of behind the ball. Some of these vaccines you can’t immediately ramp up production of—certainly not very easily—but people think that if we open the intellectual rights right now, a country like India might be able to make more than they currently are.

Serhan: Yeah; that’s the hope. Critics will probably say that it’s not a silver bullet. Some of the lawmakers in the U.S. that I’ve spoken to about this see it as a way to effectively lift the burden on other countries and say: “We need to give countries that need vaccines the means to make it themselves. We shouldn’t just be hogging this intellectual data.”

And it’s a temporary waiver. The idea is that desperate times call for desperate measures. As for whether it will happen—at the moment, the U.S., the E.U., the U.K., and a host of other countries are opposed to it. So it remains to be seen whether there will be enough pressure to change that. We’ve already seen so much movement in the last few days. Before just a few days ago, the U.S. wasn’t sharing raw materials. A few days ago, the U.S. wouldn’t countenance sharing its doses, at least not any time soon. Now we’re seeing the U.S. do both of those things. So maybe the U.S. will reconsider its position on this, but it remains to be seen.

Higgins: Can I ask about the variants? Something you have both written about and we’ve talked about on the show before is: Until it’s gone for everybody, it’s not gone. Jim, can you explain this “double mutant” variant? Is it more transmissible?

Hamblin: We don’t know yet. And I don’t like the term “double mutant.” It is being advanced by officials and by media, but all these strains are constantly mutating. When a mutation becomes significant, it gets a name. Like, the worst one is E484K, which is the one in South Africa and Brazil that seems to help evade immunological protection, at least partly.

The strain in India, B1617, has many mutations but two of note. Two ominous ones. But we don’t know more. And that’s one of the things you suggest in your story, Yasmeen—that maybe other countries could help do more genomic sequencing of the strains circulating in India to help better understand to what degree this variant is actually spreading, because that’s in everyone’s interest to understand globally.

Serhan: Yeah; as I understand it, India’s sequencing very, very few cases right now. Which is a problem, because you don’t really know what’s happening on the ground beyond the fact that hospitals are overwhelmed and that death counts are rising. But until you can ramp [sequencing] up further, it’s hard to really know what risk this variant poses and whether it can evade vaccine immunity or anything like that.

We don’t know anything about it yet, so there’s no suggestion to say that it’s that serious. They’ve not even labeled it as a “variant of concern” yet, just a “variant of interest.” But I think the broader lesson is that the world really needs to start treating these variants like they could be variants of concern—like they could, God forbid, evade vaccines or be more transmissible and more deadly.

I think we’re soon going to find that real political leadership is going to mean looking to the rest of the world and figuring out: How do I protect my population and everyone else from looming threats? Just because you vaccinate your population doesn’t mean that they’re automatically safe if this pandemic is ravaging the rest of the world.

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