Centre for Global Health Policy

Viral Sovereignty and Global Vaccine Equity

Stefan Elbe

Irrespective of where outbreaks initially occur, there are many actors around the world – including governments, scientists and industry – who require rapid access to biological specimens of the new pathogen in order to properly assess its risk and to develop life-saving new medical interventions. 

In the past, such pathogen samples were often shared freely amongst scientists, but recent outbreaks of pandemic flu, MERS, Ebola, Zika and COVID-19 have witnessed growing international legal and diplomatic contestation over who owns such biological specimens.

Many low- and middle-income countries have begun asserting legal ownership claims over biological samples, and such growing assertions of ‘viral sovereignty’ are now also giving rise to international concerns that the resulting ownership contestation could slow and hinder the response to future global health emergencies.

However, those growing ownership contestations are also grounded in longstanding structural inequalities in the international response to global health emergencies, that COVID-19 has once again brought to the fore.

CGHP members are investigating the multifaceted economic, racial, and epistemic inequalities at play in this vital field of international cooperation.

Elbe, S. (2022)  'Who Owns a Deadly Virus? Viral Sovereignty, Global Health Emergencies and the Matrix of the International'. International Political Sociology.

Elbe, S. (2010). Haggling over viruses: the downside risks of securitizing infectious disease. Health Policy and Planning, 25(6), 476-485.

Workshop: 'International Access to Vaccines during a Pandemic' - Sussex-Georgetown University Workshop.

Workshop: 'Trust in Global Health: An Interdisciplinary Workshop.'

WorkshopMedicines, Markets, Manufacturers, and Medical Countermeasures