Vaccine Nationalism: China’s and Ours

February 04, 2023

In the last year or so there have been many people who complained about China’s “vaccine nationalism.” This generally meant the country refused to approve the U.S. mRNA vaccines. The claim was that our mRNA vaccines were far superior to China’s old-fashioned dead virus vaccines. The argument went that the country needed to maintain its zero Covid policy, otherwise, the pandemic would devastate its unprotected population.

Well, we have now gotten the opportunity to test that claim. There is little doubt that the abrupt ending of pandemic restrictions led to much death and suffering in China. The government is not being open about the pandemic toll, but even the high-end estimates put the number of deaths at around 1 million.

That is a terrible number of lives lost, but the official count in the U.S. is over 1.1 million deaths.  The number of Covid-related excess deaths that were not recorded would push this figure at least 200,000 higher. With four times the population, if China were to be similarly hard-hit it would be seeing well over 5 million deaths.

The current omicron strain is less fatal than the original alpha and delta strains, but plenty of people, including vaccinated people, have died from the omicron strain. Clearly the Chinese vaccines have done a reasonably job protecting China’s population.

We didn’t need this gigantic test to know that China’s vaccines were effective. We actually had some good data from studies that compared the effectiveness of China’s vaccines with the mRNA vaccines. While one study found that the Chinese vaccines were somewhat less effective, they still would prevent the overwhelming majority of the population from getting seriously ill from the disease. The other study found that with a booster shot, one of the Chinese vaccines was actually trivially more effective in preventing death in older people.

The major issue with China was not that it lacked an effective vaccine, its biggest problem in coping with the opening of the country was its failure to get much of its elderly population fully vaccinated and boosted. It’s not clear that President Xi gave a damn about the advice he was getting from our elite policy types, but their complaint that vaccine nationalism was keeping him from buying our mRNA vaccines was nonsense.

If they wanted to give useful advice to Xi, they would have harped on his failure to get China’s elderly population fully vaccinated. This is something that could have in principle been remedied fairly quickly. The idea of quickly shipping over billions of doses of Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines was the sort of thing that would be laughed at anywhere other than the pages of the Washington Post.    

Furthermore, the obsession with mRNA vaccines is incredibly silly. There are a number of non-mRNA vaccines that have been widely administered to billions of people around the world, providing protection that is comparable to the mRNA vaccines. Most notable in this category is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was widely used in Europe. Our elite policy types have not felt the need to denounce European countries for vaccine nationalism for their failure to ensure that their populations received a mRNA vaccine.    

The fact is that we have done a horrible job dealing with the pandemic. Our policy was always more focused on making Moderna billionaires than protecting people here and around the world from the pandemic. If saving lives had been the focus of policy we would have worked together with researchers around the world (including China), pooling technology and allowing anyone anywhere in the world to produce any vaccines that were determined to be effective. Not only would more rapid dispersion of vaccines, along with tests and treatments, have saved lives in developing countries, by slowing the spread it may have prevented the development of new strains of the pandemic that led to massive waves of infections here.  

And, just to be clear, this is not a question of relying on the market rather than government. In spite of what we hear from the policy types who dominate public debate, government-granted patent monopolies, and related forms of intellectual property, are not the free market. These are policies that we have chosen for promoting innovation, they do not amount to leaving things to the market, even if their beneficiaries would like us to believe otherwise.






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