Science Without Borders

Not long ago, the world awoke to the news that BioNtech, the German bio-tech company, has developed a successful COVID-19 vaccine. The owners, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, are proud “Prussian Turks,” or German citizens of Turkish descent. Both are the children of Turkish migrants, according to the Guardian. It’s unclear if the pair’s parents came through the official German guest worker program, which brought hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens to Germany to work in various industries. The program was supposed to be temporary, but many guest workers stayed on.

Citizenship and Nationalism in Germany

Until 1999, however, German nationality law locked Turkish immigrants out of German citizenship. German law rejected the idea of Germany as a nation of immigration. In 1999, legal reforms offered a pathway to naturalization for immigrants who could establish they could integrate into German society. Children born in Germany to long term residents automatically became German citizens until they turned 23, when they must opt for German citizenship. The children of Turkish immigrants do not have the right to dual citizenship, forcing them to choose, and loss of their German passports was automatic. As a result, almost 50,000 German Turks lost their German nationality when they turned 23. The question of national identity in Germany continues to be fraught, particularly today with the resurgence of the German far right.

Science Abhors Borders

Unlike politics, science abhors borders, so the best science is usually the result of international cooperation. Viruses don’t care about nationalism or borders. This was just as true in 1918, according to John Barry’s excellent book on the flu pandemic, which required perhaps unprecedented international cooperation between doctors and scientists.

Yet vaccines have become yet another weapon in the never-ending war of nationalism against internationalism, with countries like the UK, China, Russia and the United States re-enacting the Cold War or the last Olympics in a bid to make vaccine development all about which country is “best”. But vaccines don’t develop that way — they are always the result of international collaboration by a group defined not by their place of birth or their ancestry, but by a passion for missing important family get-togethers to spend time hunched over a microscope. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that vaccine researchers seem to all know each other.

Vaccine nationalism, like most kinds of nationalism, seems to exist mostly in the minds of politicians. Meanwhile, the global supply chain continues to churn out PPE, test tubes, regents and other supplies at a breakneck pace and without much regard for borders. And when the vaccines finally arrive, the global economy will only be able to get back on its feet once most wells of infection are eliminated, meaning that hoarding vaccines in one country will only work if that country keeps its borders closed. Sharing the vaccine is the only way to beat the virus and vaccine nationalism is the antithesis of public health.

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