Why one Covid-19 vaccine is desirable

Publish: 9:00 PM, November 21, 2020 | Update: 9:00:PM, November 21, 2020

In the search for a vaccine against COVID-19, we have been witnessing two contradictory impulses: one collaborative, is stimulating global cooperation and expectation, the other protective, sees some countries seeking to monopolise key technologies and resources to meet their own narrow ends.

Why this later self centredness is undesirable ? First of all, an individual country claiming the developing of a vaccine, may do so hastily with no absolute assurance of its potency specially in the global context. This is particularly important in the background of the available information that the virus has variations and mutates locally. Secondly, a country claiming production of a vaccine may be guided by purely commercial interests and force it down the throat of all peoples across the world no matter the price, effectiveness or affordability.

Therefore, it is so important that a common vaccine be developed with an egalitarian view as a universal weapon against corona virus anywhere in the world that would be affordable to people and national governments worldwide. Most importantly, it should win worldwide trust for effectiveness and safety.

The issue was brought into sharp relief in the recent row over rumours that the US government was attempting to acquire control of a vaccine being developed by the German biotech CureVac. The riposte from Germany was that the company would develop a vaccine for the whole world, not for an individual country. But this could be mere rhetoric.

Uniting the most brilliant brains and creativity all over the planet, not sitting apart in our corners, is evidently the faster route to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Humans have prevailed because of cooperation. Yet our focus on cooperation within groups generates tribalism, group selfishness and protectionism – and that can blunt attempts to collaborate between groups.

Attempts have been made to overcome tribalism. Research foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, reach out to the entire globe. The EU Horizon 2020 R&D programme is in theory open to the world, albeit some member states argue non-EU members should be barred from participation in certain parts of the programme, such as the European Innovation Council.

The protective impulse is very much at work in the search for a coronavirus vaccine, and in policies to cope with and fight against the crisis. But our rational selves want to see international collaboration, whereas the gut reaction is to respond in a protectionist and defensive way, claiming it’s our money, our research, our people, our interests. In the case of “me versus us”, self-interest can be served by cooperation within a group. However when faced with the moral controversy of “us versus them”, our gut instincts do not provide the answer. We get stuck in a value-destroying spiral, a zero sum game in which all lose out.

How can we avoid this trap? We should not underestimate tribalistic tendencies, nor should we judge this instinctive response too harshly. It is human and omnipresent – including in the research community, even if on a smaller scale.

As we learn from negotiation theory, all human tensions are here to stay. And there is also good news: while you cannot resolve this tension, you can manage it, and to some extent transcend it.

Managing this tension for coronavirus global research requires a new and broader frame, matching the global scale of the pandemic. I suggest we empower the United Nations to organise and host such a global coronavirus frame. Countries must fund this effort according to the usual standards of UN contributions. We need such a frame as a constant reminder to recalibrate the local framing tendency. We need to reiterate over and over again that this problem is global, that we are in it together, and that a solution for New Jersey does not help without a solution for Ghana.

Once we have installed and are adhering to this global frame, we need to explore our interests at another and deeper level. The main interest obviously is to beat the virus and to survive as a society. The key issue here is to understand that survival in Manilla depends on survival in Cannes too. We have an interest in beating the virus, not just in our own country or region, but on a global level.

But we cannot leave it at this. As Joshua Greene, researcher in moral judgment and decision-making at the Department of Psychology, Harvard University, puts it, we cannot simply agree to be reasonable and open to compromise. That is what most politicians would say, whilst doing exactly the opposite. We must develop a clear moral compass, to guide us towards concrete answers. Once we look beyond the local frame and local interests, the criteria and standards for distributing global research money and finally the end product do not hang on local arguments. Only norms on the global merits are acceptable.

This raises the question of how to create such a common meta-moral standard, to guide us in weighing up competing tribal values and claims. Again, leaders must genuinely admit to tribalistic protectionism in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. We prefer ‘us over them’, and have different habits, practices, values. As Greene notes, these differences create a biased perception of what is ‘true’ and what is ‘fair’. As a result, we cannot solve such moral controversy with a classic moral gut reaction. This is too complex and requires an all-encompassing meta-morality.

Within the UN Global Coronavirus Frame, we shift to analysing the controversy of where to allocate what funds to best find a vaccine, based on evidenced facts and by going all the way for the empirical work of finding out what works best in the real world. With the universally accepted ‘golden rule’, principle of impartiality, we should create a moral system that transcends the tribal moral values, in a universal moral language to solve moral controversies, on a global level.

‘Your happiness and suffering matter no more, and no less, than anyone else’s’. With this utilitarian mantra we can tame the protectionist beast, creating effective global research collaboration – and beating the coronavirus universally, cheaply and effectively.