Science and Technology
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globalization in a needle

Redux Extra August 25, 2021
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Global Supply Chains, World Trade, and International Flows of People, Capital and Ideas Produced Life-Saving Covid-19 Vaccines

Last week, I got a shot of globalization injected directly into my arm. I was privileged (there is no other way to say it) to receive my second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine — a medicine with 280 different components, manufactured in 86 different sites across 19 countries, driven partly by the research of a son and daughter of Turkish migrants to Germany. That’s globalization in a needle.

Many have marveled at the hyper-speed research and production that underpinned the roll-out of several effective vaccines, but take a moment to consider the trade and supply chain component of the extraordinary effort. The vaccines produced by Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer/BioNTech are not just stunning examples of hyper-speed research and vaccine production in record time. It’s also a reflection and reaffirmation of our reliance on global supply chains and a reminder of the value of globalization— an oftabused term these days. When Ugur Sahin, the son of Turkish migrants to Germany and CEO of a little-known medical start-up BioNTech, received a call from Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla in early November 2020, the pharmaceutical giant had some good news to share: Phase 3 trials of their joint vaccine demonstrated 90% protection. A huge milestone had been achieved in the global fight against SARSCoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19.

When Sahin shared the news with his scientist wife and BioNTech partner Ozlem Tureci, also the daughter of Turkish migrants to Germany, the understated couple who don’t even own a car “celebrated with cups of Turkish tea at home,” the Washington Post wrote. There was, after all, little time for much celebration. The time to produce the vaccines had come — and a global supply chain
had to be kicked into high gear.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has spurred calls for re-shoring and minimizing supply chain risk, it strikes me — as a layman observer — that the genie is already out of the bottle. While companies should always be interrogating their supply chains on ethics grounds and single source risks, it would seem almost impossible (not to mention unwise) to radically change the global status quo.

Shannon K. O’Neil, wrote a smart piece on the topic in Foreign Affairs. She wrote:“Over the last four decades, the nature of trade has radically transformed. For centuries, countries mostly sent finished goods abroad: olives from Italy; wine from Spain; furs from Canada; and later on, cars from Germany; and sewing machines, printing presses, and cash registers from the United States.
Now, countries mostly send abroad pieces or components to be bent, welded, inserted, or sewn together in foreign factories and shops.”

She acknowledged the multiple risks in this process, but she argued that an attempt to radically alter the current system by bringing production home (wherever that is) will backfire. What’s needed is actually more global supply chains, not less. She
argues that corporations should not be overly reliant on one country for a vital input. They should ensure they have access to that vital input from multiple countries in case of a breakdown. So, in a sense, go even more global.

In short, businesses will need to further globalize their supply chains— but just in a more diversified way. After all, as she writes: “In the long term, dismantling international supply chains will make U.S. businesses less competitive and will blunt their global technological edge. The benefits of comparative advantage that led buyers and suppliers to look abroad in the first place haven’t disappeared.” This argument reminds me of what Emerging World fellow traveler Parag Khanna said when we had a Zoom interview with him back in February: “Globalization is a force greater than all of us…don’t bother talking about the end of globalization. Worry about your place and your role in globalization because if you don’t have one, you will regret it.” The needle that went into my arm and protected me is a product of globalization and my place in it, partly as a citizen and resident of the United States, a place that is far more globalized than its politicians understand. It’s also a product of migration and the international flow of research, ideas and people. The danger, of course, lies in the fact that far too many in developing and emerging economies remain at the back of the line for vaccines. This vaccine inequality poses the greatest global challenge today. Yes, globalization is vital and the genie is out of the bottle, but a world in which some are driving high-octane sports cars on the globalization highway while others are on rickety bicycles is neither stable nor just. But shutting down trade, de-globalizing and erecting walls will do little to help the millions of Indians and others suffering today in new Covid surges. Those same global supply chains and trade arteries will be vital to getting life-saving vaccines to the world.

By: Afshin Molavi

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