Pandemic wars vs vaccine diplomacy

Russia and China outpaced the West to offset the Covid-19 fears of poor countries

Photo: EPA

The Covid-19 pandemic opened new opportunities both for business and politics. Vaccination roll-out is very far from moving at equal speeds in all countries. The greedy West rushed to stockpile billions of jabs, lock down all ingredients for vaccine production, halt all exports of vaccines and speed up vaccination of its own population. Now the countries that lead the mass vaccination process are mulling Covid-19 passports and a wide range of bureaucracy tools, aimed to switch the pandemic exit into economic supremacy.

Countries devastated by the pandemic - including India, where a catastrophic explosion of cases has filled hospitals and morgues - cannot make vaccines without such supplies, even with access to manufacturers' cookbooks. The problem stems from the US reliance on a law dating to the Korean War in the 1950s, called the Defense Production Act, which gives federal agencies the power to prioritise procurement orders related to national defence. For decades, the law was used to supply the military as well as respond to everything from natural disasters to roadblocks in the decennial US census. For instance, an order for supplies to make AstraZeneca's vaccine in the United States would be prioritised, even though the shot is not yet approved for use in the country.

The poor countries were left behind with practically no access to vaccines. So far, so good. But the story does not end here. Countries in the West now have a huge stockpile of jabs but a dramatically falling influence among third-world states, contrary to China and Russia which have spread billions of jabs “almost for free” or “very affordably” but all linked to tough diplomatic dependence. The two super powers are focusing their efforts on regions where they are courting favours from emerging countries (for example in Asia in the case of China), or directly competing with Western powers for influence (such as in Eastern Europe, and in particular the Western Balkans, for both China and Russia), or in regions where they have only a limited presence so far (as is the case for Latin America, which is traditionally within America's sphere of influence). US President Joe Biden soon realised his country is lagging behind China and Russia and pledged to grant billions of jabs to the poor, but the point is that this action may well be too late. Chinese Covid-19 vaccines have been shipped to more than 80 countries for market or emergency use. Among them, 53 countries received vaccines for free (including developing countries in Africa and some strategically important Asian countries such as the Philippines and Pakistan) and 27 middle-income countries paid for doses. Rolling out of vaccines to developing countries, Beijing has framed itself as a solution to the pandemic rather than the origin of the pandemic.

A large portion of Chinese vaccines are not actually free - some countries have paid Chinese vaccine makers. Still, the absence of the US and EU from vaccine diplomacy is not lost on countries struggling to put shots in people's arms. Many states would prefer US or EU-made Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over China's vaccines if given the choice, yet they cannot access them. These countries are desperate and have jumped at the opportunity to receive Chinese jabs.

At this stage the developed countries are stuck in a dispute about the intellectual rights over the vaccines.

The European Commission called on the United States and other major Covid-19 vaccine producers to export what they make, as the European Union does, rather than talk about waiving intellectual property rights to the shots. European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on the sidelines of a summit of EU leaders that discussions on the waiver would not produce a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine in the short- to medium-term.

“We should be open to lead this discussion. But when we lead this discussion, there needs to be a 360 degree view on it because we need vaccines now for the whole world,” she said, quoted by Reuters. In other words - the rich are already vaccinated but the ones that produce for the rich are still in the open. The mounting number of infected and deceased in developing countries is increasing the pressure on governments of Western industrial countries. The West has so far managed to halt the spread of the pandemic, but it's far from over. Now the battle is for India and Brazil. Not that anyone is keen of or in love with them. India is the biggest hi-tech outsourcing hub in the world. The country is also the biggest producer of vaccines worldwide. Still, it has very low to none stockpiled ingredients for vaccine production. The country with the largest population has also one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world. And so the race for the less attractive vaccine destinations is now open, with China leading at pole position.

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