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Vaccine diplomacy: west falling behind in race for influence

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By then, countries such as the UK, US and Canada expect to be on their way to herd immunity, along with a clutch of other wealthy countries

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that have bought up most of the supply of western vaccines that will be produced in 2021. The divide is a diplomatic opportunity, and some foreign capitals are taking it.

“The vaccine nationalism of western countries created the space for these other countries to practise vaccine diplomacy,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations thinktank.

While China sent its Serbian ambassador to the airport ceremony marking the arrival of Sinopharm doses, and Vladimir Putin uses diplomatic summits to hawk Sputnik V, Washington, London and European capitals have preferred to let pharmaceutical companies take the spotlight, and largely allowed them to decide where vaccines go and in what quantities. With the exception of AstraZeneca, most have supplied the bulk of their doses so far to the highest bidders.

“Pfizer, Moderna too, they’re here to make a profit,” said Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Companies do not do diplomacy, in theory. They have short-term goals. So it’s very different when a vaccine is marketed by a government over a company.”

An illustration of the difference is the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India that Delhi gifted to governments in south Asia this month. The formulation was developed by a British university, in collaboration with a UK-Swedish company, but went out prominently branded: “Gift from the people and government of India.”

Any quid pro quo for vaccine aid is not likely to be immediate, analysts say. “

Obviously Russia and China are not entering emerging countries saying you need to give us something back,” said Demarais. “But in the long term it will pay dividends. And the Russian and Chinese leaderships understand the pandemic is going to be with us for a long time to come.”

China specialists are pointing to the way it has rolled vaccines into its belt and road initiative framework, using summits with Middle East and African countries to offer preferential access to jabs alongside investments in highways, ports, 5G grids and renewable energy. Last year, while Washington was trumpeting an “America first” response to the pandemic, Beijing was making high-profile deals to trial, produce and sell vaccines in Latin America, deep inside the US’s

traditional sphere of influence.A health worker shows a dose of the Chinese Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in the Jordanian capital Amman. Photograph: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty ImagesIn a century likely to see several more pandemics, Covid-19 vaccines are providing a foothold for countries’ wider health industries. Jordan, a close US ally in the Middle East, has for decades sourced most of its routine vaccines from US companies. But with Sinopharm’s formulation forming the backbone of its Covid-19 vaccination programme, health experts in Jordan say they are having a fresh look at Chinese medical products across the board.

“From now on we’ll look favourably if a Chinese company comes and says: we have a good vaccine for diphtheria or polio or hepatitis,” said Najwa Khoury-Boulos, a distinguished professor of infectious diseases, who advises the government on the pandemic. “We may not change what we buy, but we’d look at it with more respect than before.”

Russian and Chinese companies have also been more willing than their western counterparts to strike licensing deals to allow manufacturers in places such as Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, to partly or fully produce Covid-19 vaccines themselves. Last week the World Health Organizaton and Unicef put out a statement pleading for western companies to make more such deals, which may mean less profit in the long term but more vaccines sooner for societies that badly want them.

For public health activists such as Achal Prabhala, the diplomatic machinations of such deals are beside the point. With relatively unambitious domestic vaccination targets compared with the west, Russia and China have the capacity to export lifesaving vaccines in the middle of an acute pandemic – and are doing so.

“Whatever the Russian and Chinese motives are for doing this, I don’t know and don’t necessarily care,” said Prabhala, a fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation. “If the vaccines work and are affordable and available and they’re being aggressively pushed to countries who are happy to take them – who cares if it burnishes China’s image or softens Russia’s in the world?”


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