Race to Successful COVID Vaccine May Shape India’s Global Position

Will COVID vaccine shift narrative in technological & scientific innovation from Global North to Global South? 

5 min read

The world today is grappling with a major health crisis – the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. With the first COVID-19 case being detected in China in November 2019, currently more than 3.5 million people across the world have tested positive for the disease with approximately 2,75,000 deaths. In April 2020, United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, stated that “COVID-19 is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations.”

With this major health crisis at hand, countries across the globe have resorted to another race, similar to the space race by the Soviet Union and the United States of America in the 1950s and the 1960s – the race to developing the first successful COVID-19 vaccine. The stakes and the bragging rights are similar too – global validity and appreciation of a state’s scientific and technological superiority.


Material & Non-Material Aspects of Bi-Polar Power

Upon landing on the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong was famously quoted as saying, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” His words had accurately equated the ability of mankind being able to take a single step on the moon’s surface to the huge technological and scientific progress that we as humans have collectively made over the years.

In the context of vaccines and disease eradication, we do not have an impressive track record. Apart from small pox being declared as completely eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1979, we have been unable to fully eradicate a second human disease. Nonetheless, we are increasingly inching very close to completely eradicating guinea worm and polio.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, we have increasingly seen material and non-material aspects of bi-polar power undergoing several shifts that have portrayed some key features – the rise of Asia as an emerging power centre, the increase in asymmetric conflicts, and the emergence of a powerful China.

The movement of bi-polar to a multi-polar reality indeed made the world more anarchic. Therefore, it has thrown open the doors for states to continuously resort to (re) managing their own global identity and status in the international system.

World Will Remember the Nation That Makes a Successful Vaccine & Curbs Spread of Corona

Even if the coronavirus cannot be eradicated, controlling the latest deadly pandemic via a vaccine would undoubtedly be a giant leap in our progress in medical science. While this may not be the first or even unparalleled achievement like landing on the moon, it nonetheless has the significant ability of (re)shaping our perception of power and status in international politics.

For months, the world has been in partial or complete lockdown to contain the spread of the virus and reduce pressure on its healthcare systems. As a result, people across the globe have taken to protesting against governments for hurting their civil liberties by severely restricting their freedom of movement. Other serious effects of the lockdown include the loss of jobs, the inability to attend the last rites of loved ones and issues of degrading mental health.

Therefore, for the years to come, the world will definitely remember the nation that came to its rescue in these unprecedented times of immense economic and social losses and was successfully able to tame the virus that originated in China’s Wuhan province, in an era that is witnessing the economic and political prowess of China.

Conversely, there also remains a possibility that the successful state and/or with a few economically powerful Western nations would decide to forgo this badge of honour to monopolise the vaccine market and hoard supplies for its own citizens. Unlike the first scenario, while it may not guarantee global appreciation, it will nonetheless be a validity of a state’s scientific and technological advancements. This will also mark a moral and normative shift in our strong rooted belief system in the fundamental values of universalism, as ‘some lives’ would be deemed more important or superior to ‘other lives’.


Efforts Towards a Vaccine to Fight COVID-19

Recently, more than thirty countries along with the UN, research centres and philanthropic organisations pledged USD 8 billion to fund development of the COVID-19 vaccine and research into the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Historically, equity efforts to control the breakout of a human disease with a horizontal distribution of diagnostic and treatment kits have not always yielded desirable results. A very recent example of this is the AIDS epidemic. After the formation of a similar coalition of stakeholders in 2017, the world has still been unable to eradicate the AIDS virus along with a huge delay of treatment and supply kits reaching African hospitals from Europe and North America.

States like India, Israel, Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States have also been among those leading the charge in the hope of a significant breakthrough towards the discovery of the vaccine.

The Indian company, Serum Institute of India (SII), deserves mention as it currently remains the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world. It has partnered with Jennifer Institute at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and has already started manufacturing vaccines, being researched by the latter. Yet, experts have warned that the vaccine known as ‘ChAdOx1 nCoV-19’ which is still in the testing phase of human trails, is far from perfect. Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive officer of Serum Institute of India (SII), has however, defended the manufacture of the unsuccessful vaccine as being a ‘head start’, and simply a measure to ensure the availability of enough doses. In recent interviews, Mr Poonawalla has stated that the vaccine, albeit currently in the research stage, will sell for approximately Rs 1,000.


China remains an exception to this vaccine race. Should China become successful in being its victor and embarks on a program of distributing a successful vaccine at low or no cost to other countries – rather than re-instating its emergence of a power to reckon with in the 21st century – it will transform into a global exercise of correcting its international image since the breakout of the pandemic.

The Uncertainty of the Vaccine Race

Yet, hope towards a complete cure burdened with the provisions of international accessibility is simply not enough to convince the masses that the COVID-19 pandemic is fading away anytime soon. Therefore, this global race may ultimately be reduced to a game of watching.

Should we be successful in this race, it could further go on to provide credibility to the answer for an important question than pertains to the prevailing multi-polar international system: Will the vaccine for COVID-19 play into the developing narrative of seeing a shift of technological and scientific innovation from the Global North to the Global South? Or will the race simply re-instate the Cold War notion of the still prevalent Western world dominance?

(Aniruddha Saha was a Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and Dr. Duncan Anderson scholar while pursuing an MA in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College. He has previously worked with ORF, Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD), and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Currently, he is a doctoral student at King's College London. His PhD research looks at India-US nuclear relations using a constructivist perspective. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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