Simon Schofield is a long-time Conservative member and activist serving as Deputy Director at the Human Security Centre, a think tank based in London, as well as co-editor of Encyclopedia Geopolitica.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, our lives have been saturated with debate and argument about which countries are succeeding and which are failing in their responses to the pandemic.
However, these debates are often rooted in “the West”, and the successes of nations outside of this club tend to be passing headlines at most. There are a number of countries outside of the Anglosphere whose approaches to testing, treating, and vaccinating citizens amid the pandemic could hold vital knowledge for the West, both for governments’ Covid-19 response going forward, and also for future pandemics we may face.
In the realms of research, while not strictly “outside the Anglosphere”, the small island nation of Iceland is perhaps not one that immediately comes to mind when thinking of the countries with the most successful responses. But Nature, the premier scientific journal of the age, has described Iceland as having “hammered Covid with science”.
Iceland’s Directorate of Health teamed up with deCODE, a human genomic company, taking a “big data” approach to researching the Coronavirus outbreak. Due to this high-tech partnership and Iceland’s low population, the health authorities were able to track virtually every move the virus made on Iceland’s shores, monitoring every person who tested positive’s health for weeks afterwards to map out the symptoms.
This approach gave some of the earliest insights into the nature of Coronavirus, highlighting the key symptomatic indicators, as well as showing that as many as half of infected people are asymptomatic, and that children are much less likely to fall ill.
Using deCODE’s specialism in genetics, the DNA of the virus identified in each positive test was analysed, allowing mutations to be tracked virtually in real time, as well as having clear lines of transmission that mapped out how each strain of the virus had traversed the population. This genetic-tracing approach has had very real impacts, with Iceland recording an exceptionally low death rate of seven per 100,000.
Another nation under-appreciated for its innovative response to the pandemic is Vietnam. Vietnam has implemented a particularly effective contact-tracing regime, making use of people’s public social media posts to cross-reference with their declarations of where they have been and who they have had contact with.
In order to get ahead of viral transmission, Vietnam has sought to identify first, second, and even third-order contacts, sometimes as many as 200 people for a single positive-testing case, and quarantining all those in the first and second order at designated facilities. As a result of its robust response, fewer than one per cent of those testing positive are listed as having caught the virus from “an unknown source”, a remarkable achievement.
Third, while the United Arab Emirates made waves over the summer by announcing its normalisation of ties with Israel, a welcome development which will fundamentally realign the regional geopolitical tectonics, its Covid-19 response has been somewhat overlooked.
However, it certainly could have provided Europe with inspiration on how to address its vaccine woes. The UAE has partnered with Sinopharm to build its own factory for the Sinovax vaccine, having offered a base from where to carry out clinical trials for the vaccine early on in its development.
This joint venture will eventually have capacity to produce 200 million vaccine doses per year. When produced in Abu Dhabi, the final product will be branded Hayat-Vax and as “Made in the UAE” but it is the same inactivated virus vaccine as Sinovax.
The UAE, having vaccinated much of its own population already, will therefore be in a position to help vaccinate its neighbours in the Gulf and beyond, allowing the region to recover and reopen much more quickly. Conversely, governments in Europe are now being told that they desperately need to increase their own domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity against a backdrop of production shortfalls and squabbles over supplies.
Each of these national responses may not always be replicable, or even desirable, elsewhere. But what they highlight is the need for curiosity and humility, two traits not traditionally associated with politics, when looking to innovate ahead of the next major outbreak.
While calls for an international treaty on pandemics are still at relatively early stages, as many governments focus on the day-to-day response to the outbreak, they cannot come soon enough to ensure we institutionalise this information sharing internationally to ensure the best ideas are noted and implemented.