Power jab: the rise of vaccine diplomacy

An international power tussle over vaccines is under way

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

At the end of January the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, gave a speech on the tarmac of Santiago airport. ‘Today is a day of joy, excitement and hope,’ he said, standing in front of a Boeing 787 which had just arrived from Beijing. Inside it were two million vaccine doses produced by the Chinese company Sinovac. It was the first of two similar-sized shipments arriving that month.

A few days earlier, the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had emerged from Covid confinement to thank a ‘genuinely affectionate’ Vladimir Putin for pledging 24 million Sputnik doses to Mexico in the coming months. Hopes of vaccinating his country with the Pfizer vaccine had dissipated when supply dried up. Pfizer blamed ‘global shortages’, but here was the perfect opportunity for Putin to play the hero and to send the world a message: in times of need, Moscow, not Washington, saves the day.

This is vaccine diplomacy, the new great game. Nations which are hungry to compete with the West — and especially America — are using their homegrown coronavirus vaccines as a way of gaining influence. They are exchanging their vaccines for loyalty and acts of public obeisance.

It’s not that these are world-beating jabs: Sinovac has had some of the lowest efficacy ratings of any licensed vaccinations (only 50.4 per cent in one trial) and was, until this month, not even licensed for general use in China. It’s still not approved for use in the over-sixties, which is perhaps one reason why the Chinese don’t mind hundreds of millions of doses going overseas. On social media, users frequently joke: ‘Other people can have the superior Chinese vaccines. I’ll wait for Pfizer.’ Sinopharm, the other Chinese vaccine producer, can claim 79 per cent efficacy. But developing countries don’t have the luxury of choosing where they get their vaccines from if they hope to begin their inoculation programmes this year.

It’s an incredible turn of events; no one has forgotten where this virus came from, yet a year on, China is trying to present itself as the solution to the pandemic, rather than the origin of it. Some in the West might see this as laughable. For poorer countries which might otherwise have to wait months, if not years, for vaccines, it’s a persuasive pitch.

China has been planning this global rollout for months. As early as last summer, President Xi was telephoning King Mohammed VI of Morocco and other world leaders, flogging the then in-development jabs and promising that they would be a ‘global public good’. After the world turned against China as the full scale of the pandemic was revealed, Beijing was keen to avoid pariah status. The first phase of the process was PPE deliveries (for which the Serbian President was so grateful that he kissed a Chinese flag); now it’s all about the vaccines.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, embarked on a nine-nation tour of Africa and south-east Asia at the beginning of this year, offering jabs and investment for would-be allies. Some of China’s customers are predictable — political allies such as Pakistan (which will receive 22 million doses) or booming trade partners like Turkey (50 million doses). Strongmen leaders, in particular, gravitate towards Beijing’s gifts: in the Philippines, where China has donated half a million vaccines on top of a 25 million dose order, President Rodrigo Duterte was photographed attentively squeezing hand sanitiser on to Wang’s hand.

In Zimbabwe, the recipient of much Chinese investment in recent years, a 200,000-dose donation arrived this week: President Mnangagwa declared his country ‘greatly honoured’. Closer to home, the same flag-kissing Serbian President Vucic has managed the second fastest rollout in Europe, thanks to a shipment of Sino-pharm vaccines. And even in the EU, the siren call of Chinese vaccines is irresistible. Hungary has become the first EU nation to approve Sinopharm, and Viktor Orbán has even said he’ll choose the Chinese jab over Pfizer for his own vaccination: ‘The Chinese have the longest experience with this virus, so they are probably the best informed,’ he joked. The first shipment arrives this month.

The Russians aren’t far behind in the great game. In the patriotically named Sputnik V (no illusions there about how Moscow sees the vaccine), Putin has a better vaccine that is also, polls show, more trusted internationally. A peer-reviewed study published in the Lancet found it 91 per cent efficacious, almost as good as Pfizer’s 95 per cent.

Moscow claims some 1.2 billion orders have been made (that’s almost certainly an exaggeration), by 50 countries and counting. Surveys of Russian propaganda efforts show that Moscow has been targeting Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa with messages disparaging Sputnik’s rivals. Iran is expecting 400,000 doses to be delivered by late March, to the alarm of the country’s scientists. An open letter from Iran’s Medical Council complained ‘it appears that diplomatic considerations in this vaccine’s purchase prevented its standard evaluation’.

The EU has gone cap in hand to Russia, too. The bloc’s desperation — at 5 per cent vaccine coverage compared with the UK’s 24 per cent — was palpable in a recent visit that Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, made to Moscow. Borrell appeared willing to overlook Putin’s crackdown on opposition voices in exchange for jabs. Sputnik hasn’t received regulatory approval by the European Medicines Agency yet, but Hungary’s fleet-footed Orbán has ordered two million doses already. Merkel is also interested in Sputnik and has offered to help Putin establish production units within Germany.

At the height of the Cold War, more than 100 developing countries formed the Non-Aligned Movement, pledging to remain neutral between the USSR and the USA. Then, as now, the great powers did all they could to sway loyalties. With the world slipping inescapably into a second Cold War, it is these swing voters China and Russia are working on, doing what they can to minimise global support for Uncle Sam. Mexico was already looking to diversify its alliances — a striking move from a long-time US ally. It may well be that Putin will visit Mexico before Joe Biden does.

Britain, meanwhile, seems to be using India as a proxy for its international vaccine rollout. The British partner-ship with the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, could provide much-needed ballast against China and Russia. The SII is producing Oxford jabs in bulk, and while Britain focuses on inoculating its own population, the Modi government is distributing these vaccines globally, with Britain’s blessing. So India is now tussling with China over neighbours such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Indian-made jabs have also arrived in South Africa, but results have been mixed there, as tests have cast doubt on the vaccine’s efficacy against the local strain. Meanwhile Sputnik has already applied for approval in South Africa.

For all Putin’s progress, it is China that ought to worry the West. It’s often said that Beijing’s growing influence in the world comes down to hard power: economic arm-twisting and military bullying. Vaccine diplomacy may prove to be the soft power that Beijing has sought for so long. China now hopes that other countries will spread Xi’s message. In Belgrade, Vucic did so perfectly. ‘The world has hit an iceberg,’ he said. ‘Like the Titanic, the rich and the richest only save themselves and their loved ones.’

But China may yet come unstuck: for example, if it turns out that its vaccines do not offer enough protection. When Sinovac’s shoddy Brazilian trial result came out, showing 50.4 per cent efficacy, President Bolsonaro gleefully mocked: ‘This 50 per cent is good, is it?’ Bolsonaro is famously anti-vaxx — on Pfizer’s insistence of a liability waiver, he quipped: ‘If you turn into a crocodile, that’s your problem’ — but he is especially suspicious of Sinovac, ‘due to its origin’. Taiwan has also rejected Chinese vaccines and is now horse-trading with Germany over Pfizer vaccines in return for semi-conductors.

And even the Chinese rate Pfizer highly. A Shanghai-based pharma company has secured 100 million doses of the American-German vaccine. This has led to confusion on social media, with discerning Chinese citizens trying to find out for themselves whether it’s better than the homegrown options. When asked to compare Pfizer with the Chinese vaccines, one state scientist replied: ‘When it comes to domestic cars or imported cars, you all know which to get. So why don’t you know when it comes to vaccines?’ Imported cars have long been a sought-after status symbol for bougie Chinese consumers.

If there were a genuine choice in a real market, the West would win: polls show Pfizer and AstraZeneca are preferred to Sinovac and Sputnik. But people will take what they can get. Countries like Peru must wait till September for the Astra-Zeneca jab to arrive (outside Britain, no one calls it ‘Oxford’) but until then, Peru has been supplied by Sino-pharm. For now, the West’s benevolence is limited to throwing a little more money at Covax, the World Health Organisation’s developing world vaccines scheme, which has struggled to get off the ground. A request from India and South Africa to waive vaccine patents to allow global production has been blocked by America, Britain and the EU, who argue that this would ‘stifle innovation’. A fair point, perhaps, but it doesn’t look great, to say the least. What’s more, it suits the Xi-Putin narrative perfectly.

During the turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency, western politicians often complained that the mayhem in Washington made any multilateral effort to contain China impossible. But Biden is not rushing to reform a western alliance: he has his own country to vaccinate, his own economy to resuscitate. At the G7 conference in Cornwall this summer, we can expect lots of talk about a D10 alliance of democracies formed for the purpose of countering China. But if Britain and the US are serious, they must persuade the world that their friendship is worth more than China’s.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments