Is the worst crisis yet to come? The Politics of COVID-19 Vaccine Development & Access

By Cem Nalbantoğlu
Ph.D. Student, Wuhan University

Synopsis: This work assesses the possible political outcomes of a successful coronavirus vaccine development program in the context of changing dynamics within contemporary international politics.

Keywords: COVID-19, vaccine, international politics, conflict

Although it has been only half a year since the first case of novel coronavirus was recorded officially, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already described COVID-19 as the worst crisis humanity faced since World War II. While COVID-19 has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives at the time of writing, millions more have fallen sick. Meanwhile, economies are on the edge of recessions, and military conflicts have broken out in different parts of the world. However, the worst crisis might arise with the development and distribution of an effective vaccine for novel coronavirus. 

A vaccine is essential to curb the pandemic and take it under control. More than one hundred companies across the world in different countries are working day and night to accelerate the vaccine development process. British AstraZeneca in cooperation with the University of Oxford, US-based biotechnology company Moderna, and Chinese CanSino in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences are among the companies that managed to start human trials. However, despite the positive early developments, a vaccine for coronavirus has the potential to further accelerate international conflicts rather than neutralizing the negative impacts of the COVID-19. 

The direction of contemporary international politics during COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, global mobility has been greatly restricted, and global trade networks have weakened. As these fundamental channels that couple local economies to global networks are damaged, many countries experience economic stagnation and even contraction. Hence, arguably the global economy, thought to be driving force behind globalization, is also at its most fragile point since the end of the Cold War. 

Kenneth Waltz said in his famous article, Structural Realism After Cold War, “In the absence of counterweights, a country’s internal impulses prevail, whether fueled by liberal or other urges.” When global trade fails to provide economic gains, countries tend to employ protectionist policies both economically and politically. Next, economic relations gradually lose their function as an instrument for the state in the international arena. In other words, the global economy’s deprivation from the “global” reduces the cost of alienation from the international community. Therefore, amid COVID-19, we witness major powers’ increasing tendencies towards delinking from multilateralism and international institutions. The US’ politicization of anti-coronavirus measures and its withdrawal from the World Health Organization can also be evaluated in this framework. The US’ increasing financial loss during COVID-19 pushes US politics further towards protectionist and isolationist policies.

The nation-state’s rise in international politics is also evident in the state’s increasing authoritarian role during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Even Western countries that alleged China’s anti-pandemic measures as draconian had to apply similar measures to control the spread of the virus, such as lockdown and curfews. In Europe, COVID-19 has become a justification for the state’s control of society and it has shifted the course of domestic political agendas. For instance, Hungarian Parliment’s grant of “rule by decree” to Prime Minister Viktor Orban to combat the coronavirus has enabled Orban to fight the media as much as the pandemic.

Although the pandemic has contributed to stronger state authority, it is naive to assume that the nation-state will suddenly retreat once the pandemic ends. In the heat of potential international confrontations, states are looking for further channels of leverages and means to expand their area of influence and power internationally and domestically. In the context where economic gains cannot fill this vacuum, a possible COVID-19 vaccine has the potential to become a tool, like a carrot or stick, in international politics. 

A COVID-19 vaccine as the carrot and stick

In the analysis of the biotech companies that are developing the vaccine for novel coronavirus, we see that a majority are based in countries that are so-called major powers. These countries are also the biggest investors of companies working on vaccine development. The US investments have already toppled over 8 billion dollars, making up the largest amount of investment worldwide. While the US has invested around 2 billion dollars to Moderna, it has also paid French Sanofi 2.1 billion dollars for 100 million vaccine shots. Likewise, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and France have agreed to pay an initial 840 million dollars for 300 million doses of vaccine shots to Astra Zeneca. The EU plans to distribute the vaccine to member countries based on their relative share of the EU population. Meanwhile, in Russia, the Ministry of Health has announced the start of mass vaccination, in an attempt to get ahead in the global race. Finally, in Asia besides China’s investment in eight different projects, India based Zydus Cadila has launched Phase II of clinical trials. Therefore, in the case of successful COVID-19 vaccine development, it is safe to assume that these very countries will be the first recipients.

This begs the question: what will happen once an effective vaccine is developed? Surely, it will have an immensely positive impact on the global economy. However, the global economy will only start to recover remarkably when the novel coronavirus is curbed worldwide. Hence, the grand problem here lies in the distribution and availability of the vaccine, which will be determined by the actions of major world powers. 

As states strive to expand their power and create a counter-balance against other powers’ expansion, a vaccine provides another potential channel to project influence. A vaccine has the potential to become the political currency among states that could be exchanged in return for favors and alliances as it could be used to create debtor and creditors. Hence, vaccines as a political currency may play a role in international maneuvering and standoffs. French President Macron’s decision in March 2020 to confiscate all masks inside the country, including those destined for EU member countries, is one example of state policies towards essential products, which could also be replicated with vaccines.

In this context, countries that will have early access to the vaccine will not only be able to turn the wheels of the economy before others but also they will have the say on who will be the one to have it next. Vaccine producing states may make the vaccine available to weaker states in return for political and economic gains or, less likely, they might donate it as a mean to boost their soft power. Likewise, they can also create an “access-barrier” to the vaccine to further sanction countries that they see as a threat to their national security. For example, in the scenario where the US develops the vaccine, it is not realistic to expect that it will make the vaccine available to Iran without any political demands. Therefore, in contemporary international politics a vaccine has the potential to further accelerate international confrontations, instead of “normalizing” them. 


Undoubtedly, the development of a possible effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus would benefit the world immensely. With an effective vaccination system, we would gradually eradicate the negative impacts of COVID-19. Human mobility would start on a larger scale once again and the global economy would recover. However, COVID-19 has already started to empower the nation state and increase international tensions that can exacerbate international confrontations. States have both the capacity and motives to turn the vaccine into a weapon rather than a cure.

The world will benefit from the vaccine most when it is available to everyone. Global utilization of the coronavirus vaccine necessitates a well-tailored distribution system worldwide without ulterior motives. In that regard, to manage or supervise such a system, any international body or institution should have the economic, political, and military capability to cope with different challenges, including logistics and security. Therefore, major powers that invest in global order like China and Germany should take the lead to form new sets of intergovernmental organizations that can manage the cooperation among these very powers and countries where they have political and economic influence over, their periphery. Global powers can draw the framework of their cooperation and the role of international organizations and institutions, in particular, WHO, Gavi, and the UN. As such, while coordinating their allies and playing the role of political guarantor, major powers can secure the global distribution of vaccines without entangling geopolitics.  

Nevertheless, an old Chinese proverb may prove the raison d’être of the complication here; there is no such thing as free lunch. Despite the billions of dollars global powers poured into vaccine development research, can the poor, sick, and weak still dare to expect the free lunch?  

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution with which he is or has been affiliated.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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