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Tackling ‘Vaccinationalism’ with Science Diplomacy

The balance of power in the modern world has been reflected in the scientific developments within a society and has been easily threatened by new developments within nations. The Nuclear arms race and the Space War witnessed between the United States of America and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) during the Cold War period (1945-1990) are cases in point. The current COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a catalyst that has hastened the threat to this delicate balance of power, already under strain with contentions over 5G technology, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, etc. COVID-19 is not only novel in its virulence as a pathogen but also in its impact on the current international order marked by distrust, chaos and confrontation.

The growing interface between Science, Technology and International affairs with pervasive mutual impacts has expanded the dimension of diplomacy. Science has not just become a part of foreign policy of individual nations but also taken multilateral proportions in the form of climate change negotiations and agreements, collaborations in the domain of medicine, creation of UNESCO, collaborations in particle physics at CERN, etc.  Science Diplomacy is thus, one of the key components of diplomacy and global affairs.

In 1987, Science Diplomacy played a crucial role in combating the Ozone hole, through the noteworthy initiative of the Montreal Protocol, so much so that the ozone layer has been on its path of recovery since 2018. Today the pandemic offers a similar opportune moment for Science Diplomacy to help humanity tread over this crisis using international collaborations, strong partnerships and credible diplomacy.

Throughout the world there are around 150 coronavirus vaccines under development to ease the global crisis. To expedite the process, several vaccine developers are conducting different stages of trials simultaneously. In the meantime, national governments have launched initiatives for early procurement of the vaccines like Operation Warp Speed by the USA, to safeguard their ‘citizens first’ against the pandemic. This approach has given way to the phenomenon of ‘Vacci-nationalism’ that requires a crucial role to be played by Science diplomacy.

 Science Diplomacy and Past Pandemics

The lack of a coherent response from global health diplomacy, a subset of Science diplomacy, to the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the major reasons for the economic and social fallout, being witnessed around the world. It therefore becomes imperative to highlight the importance of science diplomacy (which subsumes health and other scientific fields) in tackling the crisis, by taking a step back and examining its role in a similar outbreak of SARS 2002,  thus preventing the meltdown we are witnessing today.

During the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002, there was an effective multilateral effort to combat the disease with active collaborations between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and nations as well as between nations around the world. The effectiveness of the collaborations was such that SARS-2002 was brought under control within four months after its outbreak. Juxtaposing it to today, in spite of superior scientific know-how, the world has failed miserably to deal with COVID-19, with a staggering figure of over 56 million infections and a million fatalities. So what caused this extreme meltdown? The lack of international collaboration and cooperation and extreme friction within international organisations and between nations and world bodies like the WHO have been the major causes for the fiasco.

Tackling the emerging Vaccinationalism

The global endeavor to end the pandemic and find a possible cure or a vaccine has not remained untouched by the zero-sum realpolitik approach being adopted by certain nations giving birth to the phenomenon being called ‘vaccinationalism’. ‘Vaccinationalism’ refers to the multi-billion dollar agreements signed between countries and vaccine developing pharma companies which obligates these companies to provide the supplies of the vaccines to these nations before anyone else. Such deals have been signed by countries like the USA, UK, Russia, China, etc to create a favourable impression on their citizens of their proactive approach in tackling the pandemic.

The reason this phenomenon is a cause of concern as such agreements make the potential vaccines inaccessible to other parts of the world. It would create a divide between the haves and the have-nots due to high costs of the vaccines making them unaffordable. At the same time, the prolonged wait for the vaccines could exacerbate the severity of the disease in certain parts of the world. Science diplomacy and its three key dimensions[1] can play a role in tackling ‘vaccinationalism’.

Science in diplomacy, as the scientific advice shaping foreign policy objectives, can help in coalition-building to not just expedite the process of vaccine development but also in equitable vaccine distribution globally. The ACT (Access to Covid-19 tools) Accelerator Program is an initiative by WHO and other international alliances to hasten the process of vaccine development and also ensure accessible and affordable vaccines for all. Scientists and epidemiologists around the world need to play an active role in shaping the policy of vaccine procurement by supporting and getting their respective nations to support initiatives such as ACT. Thus, the scientific community needs to wean away their political bosses from narrow PR management using ‘vaccinationalism’, as the COVID-19 pandemic is an issue of global welfare and not merely of national interest.

Diplomacy for science, as facilitation for international science cooperation, is the need of the hour to tackle the pandemic. Diplomacy during this period has had a checkered performance. While it has facilitated movement of essential health products like medicines, PPE kits, ventilators and others between nations, it has done little except play the blame-game in dealing with the disease in a coordinated way. A case in point is the inaction of the UN Security Council in discussing and charting out a roadmap to deal with the issue. It has only held a closed-door discussion over the pandemic which has not yielded any concrete international science cooperation let alone one dealing with vaccines. Science diplomacy needs to create alternative institutional mechanisms to deal with the brewing ‘vaccinationalism’ when diplomacy is held hostage to politics.

Institutions like UNESCO which have a mandate to promote science and utilise it to find lasting solutions for acute economic, social and environmental problems can be appropriate for a global science cooperation on vaccine development and procurement. Treating global health security at par with governance of global commons (sea-lanes of communication, outer-space and others) by utilising intergovernmental treaty mechanisms, can be effectively achieved through Science Diplomacy.

Lastly, Science for diplomacy, as utilization of science for improvement of international relations can be an effective way to handle the issue of vaccinationalism. The zero-sum realpolitik approach being adopted by certain nations in accessing potential vaccines has deepened the distrust and divide in the world. From the US accusing China of creating the global health emergency, to countries distrusting vaccine development in other nations, international relations today is facing some tough challenges. Science Diplomacy in the past ensured the maintenance of the delicate balance of power and reduced distrust as in the case of the Antarctic Treaty, 1959; establishment of IAEA, 1957; signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 1967, etc. It is therefore an opportune moment to give science instead of politics a chance in diffusing tensions, creating collaborations and healing not just the disease but the relations between nations.


The developing world has paved the way in regards to utilising Science Diplomacy to overcome mutual distrust during the time of the pandemic. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was the first organisation in the world to set up a COVID-19 Fund, catering to the needs of procurement of health essentials, for training of personnel and to share best practices among the member states in dealing with the scourge. Cuba utilised it’s ‘Doctor Diplomacy’ to provide relief to Europe during its devastating first wave of infections. India the ‘pharmacy of the world’ has pledged to utilise its entire vaccine production capacity to fulfil the needs of the world. It has also been utilising the e-platform of its oldest assistance program, Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation to train medical professionals in the Global South nations.

Science diplomacy thus holds the key to deal with the issue of ‘vaccinationalism’ and the tensions over the pandemic, with knowledge intensive transnational collaborations, as the current challenge cannot be resolved by nations working in silos.


[1] Royal Society, 2010. New frontiers in science diplomacy: navigating the changing balance of power. RS Policy document 01/10.

About the author

Shreya Mishra

Shreya Mishra is Junior Research Fellow at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. She has previously worked at India’s premier think tanks in the domain of international relations such as Research and Information System for developing countries (RIS), Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (IDSA). She has a Master’s degree with specialisation in International Relations. Her publications till date explore the bilateral relations between India and Bhutan, the impact of China on the Indo-Bhutanese relations and the impact of COVID-19 on Human Development Index. Her research interests include Indian foreign policy, Multilateralism, UN system and Great Power Politics.

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