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Per title. Say country X develops a vaccine, but don't want to share it with others. Possible reasons could be:

  • They can only make so much of that vaccine (perhaps because the raw materials required are scarce) and they want to retain it for their own citizens.
  • They are on bad terms with [another country], and are using the vaccine as leverage.
  • They want to make (more) money off the vaccine and don't think the rest of the world is offering them enough.

Can they refuse to share? If they can, what can the rest of the world do about it?

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    In this scenario, who actually developed the vaccine, since it likely makes a difference. Did the government of the country actually develop it (for example in a military lab) or are we talking about a private company or university lab that's based in that country?
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 0:34
  • @divibisan great question. I'm interested in both.
    – Allure
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 0:46
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    Are you asking about the vaccine as a product (as alluded to in your first bullet point) or about the knowledge of how to make it (the formula)? Because both are quite different.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 11:03
  • @Polygnome the latter. If the formula were well-known countries would presumably manufacture the vaccine themselves.
    – Allure
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 12:02
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    The details around this incident are muddy, but there is some speculation that at least one country has already tried exactly what the OP is asking about: Donald Trump reportedly met with the CEO of a German biotech company currently developing two vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 and offered a billion dollars to relocate the company to the US and give the US exclusive access to the vaccines. The company reacted by firing the CEO and issuing a statement that the vaccine belongs to the whole world. But it has raised questions about whether the German government would have been able to stop this. Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 11:56

3 Answers 3

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Export restrictions on technology (and knowledge thereof) have existed in the past and present.

See for example the US restrictions on exporting cryptography. By classifying cryptography as "Auxiliary Military Equipment" on their US Munitions List they forbid exports (until 1992). Note that both the export of the cryptography method, as well as their description, was forbidden.

Countries might apply similar export restrictions to a vaccine and to the description of how to make the vaccine (their own constitutional problems nonwithstanding, going into the details of this for each country would be far to broad).

In Europe, multiple countries have declared medical supplies as critical and have issued export bans, for example germany on March 4th, which was weakened for EU countries in late March but continues to be in effect (as far as I know, is is reported as such e.g. here) for non-EU countries. This serves to show that restricting medical supplies isn't a new thing, either.

what can the rest of the world do about it?

There might be people from the inside that want the information to get out, who will share the knowledge regardless of an export ban. The knowledge might already be out if there was collaboration with foreign scientists. Other nations might use spies or bribery to gain the knowledge, others might impose sanctions and even others might outright declare war. If the country is small, it would depend on international support to defend itself, which might not be there if they want to keep a vaccine for themselves. Even getting reimbursed by patent-fees depends on being able to enforce those fees, which needs enough political capital to do so (which will be at an all-time low after trying to keep a vaccine from the world). Other countries simply might not recognize the patent.

The weakening of the aforementioned export ban in germany came after pressure from the EU commission. Other countries used their political influence to have this ban lifted. This is one such an example of what "the world" can do.

Note that international treaties are not really contracts in the form private contracts are. If people or businesses fail to adhere to a contract (treaty), there is a justice system and eventually courts that will settle the dispute. in international treaties, this doesn't exist in that form (international courts nonwithstanding), so even if the research was carried out with money from a 3rd party which was contingent on sharing the gained knowledge, that doesn't mean that the country could just ignore to issue an export ban nonetheless (even if that might be inadvisable from a political PoV and lead to consequences like sanctions later).

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  • You're confusing a (software) product with the idea it's implementing (the algorithm). Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 15:09
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    @Fizz No, because the ban also included any description of how it works (the algorithm).
    – Polygnome
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 15:12
  • Evidence of the latter? Sure the US probably prohibits direct access from Iran to csrc.nist.gov/csrc/media/projects/… but can they ban all books re-publishing that? Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 15:13
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    @Fizz He's not claiming the export ban was pragmatic, enforceable, possible, constitutional, or even sane. But publishing was in fact legally "banned". See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernstein_v._United_States
    – Just Me
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 18:22
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    @Fizz not to my knowledge, but the t-shirts pointed out how ridiculous the export ban was.
    – doneal24
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 20:39
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If a country develops a COVID-19 vaccine, can they refuse to share it?

Of course they can.

If they can, what can the rest of the world do about it?

Invade the country and take it from them. It will be one country vs the rest of the world.

Less drastic measures include using spies and/or bribes. Sanctions are also on the menu, but how effective have they been in the past?

Note that even the secret how to make a nuclear bomb got out. After the existence was announced - by using one - several countries tried to obtain the secret. And after some time, they succeeded.

If a country really wants to keep a vaccine to itself, its best option is not to tell anyone about the vaccine in the first place. Just add it to your local flu vaccine program, and forge some documents to cover that up. Only a few persons need to know, and the silence of a few people is easy to arrange.

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    @Chipster: it's an answer based on an alternate ("sovereignist") reality that glosses over any and all details how vaccines are researched or produced. (E.g. it's not showing any historical example where something like what it claims can happen actually happened.) Basically just a sovereignist quip "countries can do whatever they want, TADA", followed by a "molon labe" social-Darwinism worldview. Even if you share those views, you have show they are relevant in this context with more than mere speculation. The answer also ignores how many vaccines are in the works (using the same approaches.) Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 7:51
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    Yeah, it’s so vague as to be meaningless. Who’s developing this secret vaccine and testing it without anyone knowing? Other countries invading another one to seize the giant vials of vaccine stored on an army base? Somehow sticking a secret vaccine into the flu shot and not telling anyone? This is just lazy, generic and a bit conspiratorial (in a nonsensical way)
    – divibisan
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 13:33
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    @Polygnome: and how many vaccines has the US banned from exports? Apples. Oranges. Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 13:56
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    @Fizz how is a vaccine, which is just a piece of knowledge, different from encryption algorithms, which are also just pieces of knowledge? if the US had seen an advantage by banning the export of vaccine, they would have employed it. Just because something hasn't happened yet because it isn't politically desirable or advantageous to do so doesn't mean the capability of doing it doesn't exist. Its more like "the US has banned the export of apples. So the precedent for banning export of fruit exist. they might also ban the export of oranges", and then you saying its apples and oranges. yes it is
    – Polygnome
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 15:01
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    @Polygnome: the algorithms are not secret. You're confusing the software implementing them with the algorithms. Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 15:07
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This question is very much "tinfoil hat". To be clear what I'm talking about, this question was clarified via comments (instead of edits, so -1) that it's about a country "not sharing" the vaccine research.

Even if they do that for some Trumpian reason, it would mean more outbreaks elsewhere at least in the short run. (All experience we have with vaccines suggests rich countries have been doing the opposite, i.e. not only sharing formulas but actually producing vaccines for the poor countries; see Gavi etc.) But let's further assume the leaders of some country decide that they have ultimate autarky as their goal, with perma-closed borders to make this goal of not sharing vaccine research even remotely plausible. (And even then, if you [used to] export anything to your neighbor, them being in lockdown is still going to hurt your economy.)

Almost all vaccines approaches being used are being attempted by more than one country. E.g. the US is developing a mRNA vaccine for Covid-19 (Moderna), and so is China (CanSino), and even Germany (CureVac) etc. According to the WHO, there are over 40 concrete Covid-19 vaccines being proposed and various stages of testing. It's true that some may have some months or let's assume even years advantage over the others in R&D.

Any advantage of not sharing info is likely to be relative short lived in such an environment. Whatever gaps in research one country may have it would be filled by either a bit more time or (in extremis) industrial espionage. I don't enough about vaccines to tell you if how they are produced can be a big deal, as opposed to the actual product. If the final product is most of "secret", then getting a dose via an agent in another country would be fairly easy given that (hundreds of) millions of vaccines would have to be produced. If the production process turns out to be the "big secret", it may require a bit more "handiwork" in terms on industrial espionage.

But you can also bet that any country that does this kind of vaccine-info export banning risks serious backlash against their pharma industry, e.g. retaliatory bans, patent or even factory confiscations abroad. So only in some mega-Trumpian world of completely autarkic countries would the pharma industry in the 1st-discovery country not strenuously oppose such an idea.

Frankly, given how the pharma competition is structured and what we've seen happen with the Covid-19 testing already, countries are more likely to promote "national champions" in this vaccine area too, i.e. we'll probably not see the same vaccine everywhere, but for rather different reasons than the 1st breakthrough/developer not being allowed to "share it". "Not invented here" is probably going to be a bigger problem in this universe.

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  • From what I gather about vaccine development, a) it is sensible to do parallel development also for biological reasons: in the past, there have been differences in efficiency and also in the safety between vaccines for the same disease. For SARS-CoV-2 vaccine I gather there are discussions of "fast-track" approval similar to the tests we have now: AFAIK they have not yet finished the normal validation procedure and are used on a provisional approval based on preliminary validation results. This is done since in the current emegency a somewhat higher risk of wrong test results than usual is... Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 10:42
  • ... accepted. For the vaccines, some countries may decide to use a fast-track procedure as well, while others may decide to require full validation (this is again a political decision). The thing is that a substantial amount of the development time will be needed for the validation studies. And they need to be larger than the fast track validation studies for the tests: with the testing, not knowing how good exactly the test is can be counteracted by testing high-risk subpopulations only. But a vaccine will be given to millions of healthy people, so even rare adverse reactions are a big deal. Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 10:50
  • I'm not sure how exactly legislation is here, i.e. which/how many countries approve a vaccine based on validation studies that are done somewhere else. But for countries insisting on validation studies "at home", X keeping the "recipe" secret will not lead to that much of a lag. For countries that pool evidence from validation studies in other countries, X will be hampered since they cannot use the advantage of those pooled ressources while keeping the secret. b) supply bottlenecks are quite common for vaccines - but this is not because only county X can produce the vaccine, relevant causes... Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 11:11
  • ... in this context include that a production line needs approval from all countries where the vaccine is being sold, and each lot needs a separate regulatory approval (at least here in Germany) This German-language article (aerzteblatt.de/archiv/188241/…) says that vaccine suplliers plan capacities 2 - 4 years ahead. Still the whole system is rather fragile (there are not too many vaccine producers world-wide). The chances of country X thus depend very much on whether they happen to be a country that is able to.. Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 11:19
  • ... domestically produce the whole vaccine (I'm not even sure whether such a country exists, since AFAIK the production process involves several steps which are likely spread out across the whole globe). So what is rare are neither the chicken eggs, cell cultures or other raw materials, what is rare are production plants that are able to run the process at scale and under the required rigid quality control. My guess is that SARS-CoV-2 vaccine will be prioritized and production lines that would otherwise produce other vaccines will switch to SARS-CoV-2 vaccine once they are approved. (This... Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 11:29

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