The Biden Administration last week announced that the US would share about 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries over the coming weeks and months. While the decision will help to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), it also marked the first entry by the US into a competition for influence through vaccine diplomacy.
Russia and China are far ahead of any Western countries in providing COVID-19 vaccines as a form of diplomacy, even though both countries have had slow starts to vaccinating their own populations.
Back in August last year, Russia proudly announced that it had developed the first COVID-19 vaccine, called Sputnik V. The announcement appeared rushed, as critical trials had not yet begun, which fueled some skepticism about the vaccine.
Fortunately, the vaccine is effective and safe, with more than 91 percent efficacy, according to information from the Russian state institution that developed it. However, Russia has not provided key data to allow independent evaluations.
Russia is exporting its vaccine to about 70 countries. These include states that are Russian allies, such as Syria and Venezuela, and nations where Russia competes for influence, such as Hungary and Slovakia. Often, Russia sells rather than donates its vaccines, but at relatively affordable prices.
Russia’s vaccine diplomacy is achieving multiple political and economic goals. Moscow enjoys any opportunity to criticize the US and has highlighted America’s decision to focus on vaccinating its own population.
Russia has also successfully created division within the EU, with countries such as Slovakia and Hungary accepting the Sputnik V vaccine, breaking with EU efforts to ensure unity and equitable vaccine distribution within the bloc.
Russia’s provision of vaccines helps it reframe narratives about its actions emphasizing the country’s role in providing life saving medicine rather than concerns about its actions in Syria or Ukraine or its treatment of political dissidents.
Russia also seeks to deepen its bilateral political and commercial relationships with recipient states. Moscow expects that the countries that receive Sputnik V will facilitate Russian trade and investment and perhaps provide political support in the UN and elsewhere.
China has also used vaccine diplomacy to achieve multiple goals, including trying to restore its reputation after the pandemic originated within its borders. The country has several vaccines in late-stage trials and is exporting some of them.
However, its vaccines so far appear to be significantly less effective than others; different data suggest efficacy levels between barely 50 percent and 80 percent.
China has also not yet provided important data to allow for independent evaluations.
Beijing is exporting vaccines to about 90 countries. In most cases, it sells the vaccines and sometimes provides loans. China donates some of the vaccines, particularly to countries involved in the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). It has also conducted trials in several countries, providing them with vaccine doses.
“It is clear that Russia, China and the US see vaccine diplomacy as a part of their geopolitical rivalries”
Kerry Boyd Anderson
In addition to improving its reputation, China has several goals for its vaccine diplomacy. These include standard commercial goals through selling its vaccine, as well as deepening trade and investment relations with recipient countries.
It is providing vaccines to many countries, but with a focus on Asia and Latin America and particularly BRI Countries. Beijing would like to expand its share of global pharmaceuticals market. Like Russia, China is seizing the opportunity to criticize Washington for its approach to vaccines.
The US is now entering into vaccine diplomacy, but it has made a late start. Both the Trump and Biden administrations focused on ensuring that Americans could be vaccinated first before sharing vaccines.
The Biden administration previously pledged $4 billion to the Covax facility to purchase vaccines and provided some AstraZeneca doses to Canada and Mexico; now, it plans to provide more doses to other countries in the coming weeks and months.
Administration officials are considering where to focus their efforts, with Central America a likely candidate. US goals include competing for influence with Russia and China and combating the pandemic within populations near US borders.
If vaccine diplomacy is a competition, Russia and China have a head start. Much will depend on whether their vaccines prove to be truly effective and safe, as well as on the reliability of their supplies.
The US is entering the game late, but reports suggest that even countries that are receiving Russian and Chinese vaccines still want US and European vaccines. If the US and European vaccines appear to be higher quality, then there is room for Washington to eventually catch up.
It is clear that Russia, China and the US see vaccine diplomacy as a part of their geopolitical rivalries.
However, this framing is unfortunate. Vaccinating the global population as quickly, effectively and safely as possible will benefit everyone. No country will be safe from COVID-19 until the pandemic ends globally. No economy will reach its potential until all economies are recovering from the pandemic.
It is time for global cooperation, not competition. Russia and China should stop spreading disinformation designed to undermine trust in the US and European vaccines. The US should not try to dissuade other countries from using Russian and Chinese vaccines as was attempted with Brazil when it will not even offer an alternative. While it is understandable that Washington wanted to vaccinate Americans first, it should donate excess vaccines as soon as is reasonable.
Russia and China should work harder to vaccinate their own populations as well as exporting their vaccines, and both should improve the transparency in their vaccine data. All countries will benefit from an effective global vaccination campaign, regardless of who provides the vaccines.