As winter approaches and colder weather makes it even more difficult to adhere to social distancing measures, the odds of COVID-19 spreading still further seem to be inevitable. Still, despite having the highest infection rate in the world, there is growing optimism in the United States, thanks to the prospect of effective vaccines being developed in the not-too-distant future. The fact that financial markets worldwide have also welcomed the latest news from Pfizer and Moderna on their respective developments for fighting the virus also demonstrates continued global confidence in U.S. scientific research.
Yet developing a vaccine only marks another chapter in the long road ahead to recovery from the deaths and destruction caused by the virus. What remains uncertain, and takes on greater urgency, is how and when the vaccine might be made available to the majority of the world’s population. As a country that is collaborating and yet not at the forefront of vaccine development, Japan has a sizable role to play in keeping flaring vaccine nationalism in check and in pushing for a more equitable distribution of the much-needed drug worldwide.
Some of the most noteworthy factors of the pandemic have been the rapid spread of the virus to almost all countries on the planet and the lack of global leadership to fight the pandemic. The fact that the United States has not joined international efforts to distribute the vaccine, once available, in a more equitable manner worldwide through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) has certainly been unsettling. Coupled with the fact that the Trump administration withdrew from the World Health Organization itself in the midst of a global pandemic, the concern that even if U.S. companies are successful in bringing an effective vaccine to market, access to the drug would be elusive to those countries that are unable to pay.
Amid such very real concerns about accessibility and affordability, the fact that Japan has pledged $130 million to the WHO-led COVAX is as much a demonstration of Tokyo’s willingness to work within a multilateral framework. Granted, the United States under a Biden administration is expected to be more amenable to coordinating efforts with like-minded nations, including public health care. Yet with China joining the international coalition in October, Beijing has again pulled ahead of Washington in trying to promote itself as a champion of global values, this time in the field of medical technology, which has emerged in 2020 as yet another source of global competition. In fact, both China and Russia have claimed to have already developed a vaccine, and Beijing has certainly not shied away from administering shots to its population, even though its efficacy has not been confirmed in accordance to international medical standards. At the same time, there has been growing wariness about China using its “Belt and Road Initiative” to pressure countries to accept the Chinese version of the vaccine with the tacit understanding that it would be to their broader economic interest in the future. China’s last-minute entry into the COVAX agreement gives Beijing greater legitimacy as a power that is willing to contribute to global health diplomacy, rather than focus on nationally-driven vaccine development and distribution.
Granted, Japan too has been developing its own drug, Avigan, against COVID-19. Yet the drug being developed by Fujifilm is not a vaccine but rather a treatment for coronavirus symptoms. As a result, it does not compete directly with the efforts of either China or the United States. At the same time, Tokyo has a vested economic interest in ensuring that South and Southeast Asia in particular recover quickly from the pandemic, and that safe travel across Asia and beyond can resume quickly.
What Tokyo brings to the table is not just a vast network of manufacturing capabilities, distribution networks and infrastructure development know-how to ensure the viability of temperature-sensitive vaccines, but an ability to step back from the broader tensions between Washington and Beijing that are likely to emerge even in the area of medical diplomacy.
Some particularly bullish U.S. financial analysts are already arguing that the vaccines that are closer to becoming marketable will effectively end the pandemic by next summer. Whether such optimism is widely shared or not is debatable, but it is clear that the vaccine will be a game-changer for the world. The lockdowns, border closures and disruptions to the global economy as a result of the coronavirus have made only too clear the widely disruptive nature of contagions. At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed some of the darkest sides of the U.S. and European economies in particular — as the virus has disproportionately hurt lower-income households as well as minorities.
Japan has been relatively successful in keeping the coronavirus at bay compared to the rest of the world. But stopping the spread of the pandemic is only the first act of dealing with the global pandemic. By focusing on addressing the challenges of vaccine accessibility and distribution by leveraging its logistical as well as financial capabilities, Tokyo has a bigger and urgent role to play in the second act of tackling this international health crisis.
Shihoko Goto is deputy director for geoeconomics with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program based in Washington.
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