US aims to pass Russia, China in vaccine diplomacy race

Vaccines are now part of a global geopolitical struggle. This might have positive consequences for the world

  
Vials labelled "Astra Zeneca COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed U.S. flag in this illustration taken March 10, 2021.

Vials labelled "Astra Zeneca COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed U.S. flag in this illustration taken March 10, 2021.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The US may have joined the vaccine diplomacy race late, but it is trying to outdo Russia and China, both of which had head starts.

Amid a focus on vaccinating its own population first, the US domestic vaccination campaign has been fairly successful, with 48 percent of Americans now fully inoculated. Most Americans who were keen to get a COVID-19 vaccine have received their jabs. The campaign now has shifted to conducting clinical trials for children and trying to persuade Americans who are hesitant about the vaccine to get jabbed. This progress has allowed the US to start focusing more on helping other countries combat the pandemic.

When President Joe Biden took office in January, his team was well aware of criticisms that the US was not doing enough to help global efforts to fight the pandemic. Biden took an initial step in February, when he pledged $4 billion to Covax, the multilateral organization established to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. In March, Washington announced that it would send 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico and Canada. In April, the administration announced plans to share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine with other countries, once US regulators approve it.

These initial steps were relatively small, especially as Russia and China were sending their own vaccines to multiple countries, though their domestic vaccine programs lagged.

However, in recent weeks, the US has jumped into providing vaccines to countries around the world. The shift in approach began with the announcement that it would donate 80 million doses from its own vaccine supply this summer. Seventy-five percent of those doses are going to Covax, to be distributed to countries in South and Central America, Asia and Africa. The US is directly sending the remainder to specific countries, such as neighboring Mexico and Canada, regional hotspot Haiti, ally South Korea, Afghanistan, and several other nations in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Biden followed that step with a major announcement in June that the US government would buy 500 million doses of the Pfizer jab to donate globally. The US will work with Covax to distribute these doses. It is also supporting efforts to expand local production of vaccines in other countries, and Biden expressed support for the controversial idea of a patent waiver for vaccines.

The US donations represent major steps forward for efforts to vaccinate the world. In terms of scale, the 500 million Pfizer doses constitute far more than the 121 million vaccines that Covax has delivered so far, but still fall far short of Covax’s goal to distribute 2 billion doses this year.

There are several reasons the US has an interest in donating vaccines to other countries. Fundamentally, all countries will benefit from ending the pandemic. As long as the COVID-19 virus rages in other countries, it will continue to be a threat to the health of Americans. The US economy is deeply linked to the global economy, which will not fully recover until the pandemic is under control.

The US has other motivations, as well. For many policymakers, there is a moral imperative to help the rest of the world, especially now that most Americans who want a vaccine can access one. One priority for the Biden administration is making foreign policy more relevant and clearly beneficial to average Americans, and the White House has highlighted that the Pfizer deal will benefit US manufacturing and jobs.

Competing with Russia and China in the vaccine diplomacy race is another factor. Both nations promised to provide vaccines far earlier than the US, and Moscow and Beijing repeatedly contrasted their willingness to share with the supposed stinginess of the US and Europe. These efforts helped both gain influence and burnish their reputations.

However, Russian and Chinese efforts have run into significant problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet approved Russia’s vaccine, and Russia faced significant problems and delays with production and supply, often failing to meet expectations for delivery. As Russia’s domestic vaccination program picks up, its ability to export vaccines may decline further. Two Chinese vaccines are approved by the WHO and appear to help prevent severe illness, but there are serious questions about the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Several countries that extensively used Chinese vaccines still experienced major COVID-19 outbreaks.

While Russia and China had a head start, the US is hoping to use its highly effective vaccines to beat both at the vaccine diplomacy game. Biden has expressed the hope that the US can be the “arsenal of vaccines” in defeating the pandemic, and placed that effort in the context of a wider competition between democracy and authoritarianism. The UK has announced plans to donate 100 million doses to Covax, and EU leaders have said they will offer at least 100 million doses. Much will depend on how smoothly the US, European, Russian, and Chinese efforts go in the next few months.

Vaccines are now part of a global geopolitical struggle. This might have positive consequences for the world. If competition motivates several countries to provide more vaccines to others, it could benefit many people and help end the pandemic, regardless of who wins the vaccine diplomacy race.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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