Singapore and COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism

It has been 8 months since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Wuhan, China.  The pandemic has spread to the entire world, millions have been infected and many people have died.  The pandemic does not seem to be abated, with countries that previously managed to control the outbreak is now struggling to control the 2nd wave.

Current methods, such as social distancing, curfew, closing any social gathering place – while it helped to manage the outbreak – is not sustainable.  It comes with high cost to the economy.  Many companies are facing closure, employees are either being furlough or let go altogether.

Prevention, in the form of vaccine, is always better than the cure.  However, it usually takes many years to get an effective and safe vaccine.  Due to the urgency, the vaccine development has been sped up tremendously.

Assuming we have effective and safe vaccine, the next question is how to manufacture and distribute the vaccine.

Having the population vaccinated against COVID-19 will give the country in a better position to restart its economy.  People could do their normal activities without any restrictions. People can work and study with peace of mind.  Industries and Services can operate normally and start hiring people.  The government could stop all the subsidies given to its population during COVID-19. The benefits are very clear.

There are many companies that can produce vaccine.  However, their facilities are not geared towards producing massive number of vaccines in a very short period of time.  It will take time for them to ramp up the production to serve world.

As a result, there will be a shortage of vaccine. Coupled with expected benefits and domestic push, many countries will simply force vaccine manufacturer in their countries to produce vaccine for their own population first before exporting the vaccine to other countries.

Welcome to vaccine nationalism.

Problem with vaccine nationalism is real; it is naïve to think that countries should not advance its own domestic agenda first.  It is political suicide for a government to simply sends the vaccine away while its domestic populations are still affected by COVID-19.

The problem gets deeper.  Even if the population of the countries where the vaccine manufacturers are located are fully vaccinated, the next question is who’s next.  Countries with deep pocket will simply buy the vaccine, putting them ahead of the queue.

However, COVID-19 is a global problem.  Until the last person in the world is vaccinated, similar to what human managed to achieve with smallpox, COVID-19 will still be in circulation and infect people.

Perhaps this is what small countries like Singapore can offer. 

It can help by fully pay the cost of setting up high-capacity vaccine manufacturing and selling the vaccine at cost.  In return, it has first priority to the vaccines needed for its population.

As the country is small, with only 5+ million population, Singapore would produce lots of excess vaccine that can be sent to other countries, such as its ASEAN neighbors.

This sounds attractive but it may also sound too simplistic.  Building vaccine manufacturing facility will take time.  It requires specialized people to operate.  It may take time to get the facility to ramp up the production. Lastly, there are different vaccine candidates and each may have different ingredients.

However, where there is a will, there is a way.  Building a facility should not be difficult for Singapore.  It can divert contractors and people from other projects to build the facility. Specialized machines require to produce the vaccines could be procured now so that it arrives when the building is ready.

Staff from existing research facilities and laboratories can be tasked to operate the facility in the beginning until there are enough people trained to operate the facility. Biomedical science graduates from universities or people who are currently unemployed can be trained to operate the facility.

If necessary, Singapore may also allow skilled technicians from other countries to also operate the facility. This not only help to jumpstart the production but also to show to the world that Singapore’s facility is a global facility, manned by people from many countries, to produce the vaccine for the world.

There may be some teething issues during initial productions, so it is expected first few batches would go waster.  Perhaps, the new facility could produce other vaccines as the way to train the workers and test the production line.

Singapore may also take similar approach as other vaccine manufacturing by starting to stockpile all ingredients of few vaccines that look promising without waiting for final clearance for the vaccine.  The idea is to have all ingredients ready the moment green light is given.  However, it also a gamble because some vaccines that originally look promising may later on found to be ineffective.  It is a necessary gamble in order to speed up the vaccine production.

It may sound too ambitious, simplistic and perhaps crazy.  However, having Singapore to produce the vaccine for the world would show Singapore’s commitment to the world and also showing Singapore can punch above its weight.

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