‘Vaccine Diplomacy’: Friend or Foe?

(Photo: Our World in Data)

By Laura Powell – Contributor

Much like with the Space Race, science and politics have become intertwined. The first nation to develop a successful vaccine will be immortalised in political and scientific history, and now this race is over, these countries are competing to provide the most vaccines across the world. 

More than a year on from the first UK national lockdown, the vaccination programme is well underway- 67.8% of people have had one dose, and 35% have had both. This picture is promising, but inconsistent across the globe. In North America, the vaccination rate is 79 per 100 people; in Africa, this number is hardly 1 for many countries. Consequently, countries in the developing world are relying on schemes such as COVAX to obtain vaccinations. The use of these schemes is encouraging vaccine diplomacy- rich and powerful countries are improving their global image and gaining influence over countries relying on them for vaccines. China and Russia are highly involved in vaccine diplomacy. Russia is allegedly planning to send vaccinations to as many as 70 countries. 

Although on the surface this scheme sounds like it promotes global equality and is aiming to accelerate the ‘herd immunity’ process, how cautious should we be? Take China as an example. Geopolitics seems to be the most considerable factor, not the safety of the vaccinations they are providing. Firstly, their vaccines (Sinopharm and Sinovac) have not yet been approved. This means they are sending out unregulated vaccines, and these countries cannot access approved Western vaccines (AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna) to the extent that China is offering theirs. Secondly, while using these schemes to bolster their standing on the world stage, China neglects their own population. Their vaccination rate stands at only 24.6 people per 100. Out of the 299 million doses China manufactured up to the end of March, they exported 109 million. This is in stark contrast to the approach of the UK, who are vaccinating their population first. 

The race for the benefits of vaccine diplomacy are not smooth-sailing for all countries involved. India has hit a critical point in their COVID journey, with a drastic increase in cases since the beginning of April. This has undermined their efforts to extend free doses to other countries in the region. India has followed the same path as China: exporting doses rather than vaccinating their population. They have only used one third of their vaccine supply within India. However their efforts have been curtailed due to the recent wave of cases. India has temporarily halted exports of vaccines which are produced in their country (AstraZeneca, produced by the Serum Institute of India), in order to prioritise vaccinating their own population. Thus, the countries relying on India for exports of vaccines now have to wait for the spike in India to reduce enough that the export programme will be reinstated. 

Vaccine diplomacy has also caused strain on a variety of political relationships. Russia’s vaccine, Sputnik V, gained approval (although only domestically) in August 2020. The typical standards for vaccines were not obtained, and while relevant authorities take time to approve Sputnik V for use, Hungary authorised the vaccine. Just like with Chinese vaccine exports, the Russian exports to Hungary are made up of (thus far) unauthorised vaccines. This causes tension within the EU, as Hungary is a member state now imported vaccines which haven’t been regulated by the EU. Further EU conflict is apparent between Brussels and AstraZeneca over the delivery of vaccines to EU member states from the UK. Although relations between the EU and the UK, and even member states like Hungary, can be fraught, if the past year through the pandemic has taught us anything, consensus and cooperation in global politics is crucial. 

These experiences do not exhibit that vaccine diplomacy as a whole is unsuccessful or even undesirable, because getting vaccines to developing countries is critical. However, there are considerable political motivations behind these decisions, and perhaps this means countries are not sharing doses for the right reasons. India, for example, is favouring its neighbours, and some countries where China holds influence. This is a cause for concern; it is easy to argue that these countries are being used as political pawns between India and China. Is this really what the vaccine sharing schemes are aiming to do? Additionally, countries which China, Russia, and India aren’t involved with are neglected, and the function of these schemes undermined. Smaller, less powerful countries are now dependent on these powerful nations. 

Although there were always going to be problems arising from global efforts, scientists hold consensus that the main way out of the pandemic is through vaccinations. For the world to return to any sense of ‘normality’, including with foreign travel for holidays and business, people across the world need to be vaccinated. It will be interesting to see how the vaccination programmes and sharing schemes across the world progress, particularly with the upcoming decisions around regulation of new vaccines. 1.36 billion people have been vaccinated as of the end of April; just 6.5 billion to go. 

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