More than 60 years ago, the US and the USSR, while in the midst of the Cold War, collaborated to produce and scale a new oral polio vaccine and test it on millions of Soviet schoolchildren. The 3 poliovirus strains suitable for vaccine production were first developed in the laboratory of Albert Sabin and were sent (with US government approval) to the USSR, where Sabin then worked with Soviet science counterparts, including Mikhail Chumakov. These studies paved the way for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Later, in the 1960s, the USSR refined a technique for freeze-drying the smallpox vaccine, making it possible to deliver it intact to remote tropical areas. This innovation helped D.A. Henderson, a US epidemiologist, to lead a global smallpox eradication campaign under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). In both cases, 2 political enemies put aside their differences to collaborate on solving great public health or pandemic threats. Both achievements helped to ignite a modern international framework of vaccine diplomacy for promoting scientific collaboration for vaccine development and ensuring vaccine equity.
Global politics have clearly shifted since the time of Sabin and Chumakov, and the multipolar interconnected world of today is far more complex than ever before. However, the principles of vaccine diplomacy remain intact, as evidenced by the establishment of COVAX, an innovative sharing instrument led by the WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund, Gavi, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, focused on COVID-19 vaccine manufacture and equitable and fair distribution, especially for resource-poor settings.
However, vaccine diplomacy is now under threat by a new vaccine nationalism, in which Russia and China previously conducted unilateral negotiations to promote their vaccines. Although there is welcomed recent news of WHO emergency approval for the Sinopharm Chinese COVID-19 vaccine, this is not yet the case for the others. Russia has reportedly launched clandestine efforts to disparage vaccines made in the US and Europe to promote its own Sputnik V vaccine. Tragically, this is happening at a time when COVID-19 is surging globally and potentially breaking new records for the number of new daily cases, while overwhelming already underresourced communities and health systems. Therefore, restoring or redesigning vaccine diplomacy in the coming years will require commitment to a large-scale global effort. The 3 top priorities in this global effort are explained below.
Read the full article in JAMA.