As wealthy Western countries carefully guard their national stockpiles of COVID-19 vaccines, raising concerns about “vaccine nationalism,” China and Russia have moved aggressively in the opposite direction—toward vaccine diplomacy. Moscow and Beijing have used their homegrown formulas as powerful diplomatic tools, enabling them to curry favor with poorer nations that have largely been left out of the race to inoculate the world.
Vaccine diplomacy, however, is not the exclusive domain of major powers. Aspiring regional powers, including some smaller countries, are increasingly stepping into the ring too, garnering goodwill by selling or donating vaccine doses. The result is a global battle for soft-power influence that could escalate significantly in the coming months as even more countries join in.
Perhaps the fastest-rising player in this competition is India. Licensed to manufacture Covishield, the Indian label for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that was developed in the United Kingdom, New Delhi has quickly become a vaccine diplomacy leader. More than 50 million doses a month are produced at the Serum Institute of India—a company based in Pune, in the western state of Maharashtra, that is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines.
This output far outpaces India’s capacity to administer the shots to its own population. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has thus turned to gifting and commercially marketing the surplus vaccines, enabling the country to compete with its rival, China, in strengthening ties and enhancing leverage with other countries.
Calling it Vaccine Maitri, or Vaccine Friendship, the Indian government focused the initiative first on its neighbors and partners in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. But the program has since branched out to include New Delhi’s “friends” throughout the world, ranging from Afghanistan, Oman and Morocco to the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. “We believe that the world is our family,” Modi has declared on Twitter. The millions of shots from the “pharmacy of the world” have actually preempted the arrival of Chinese doses, enabling countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka to start their inoculation programs ahead of schedule.
India is also garnering favorable global press as a contributor to COVAX, a global initiative that aims to ensure the equitable access of vaccines to poorer nations. In late-February, Ghana become the first country to receive a shipment under the program: 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India.
Though it lacks India’s production capacity, Israel has sought to engage in its own vaccine diplomacy, buoyed by its position as the world leader in rapidly inoculating its population. Thanks to favorable agreements with pharmaceutical companies from abroad, some 55 percent of Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose.
With domestic COVID-19 cases now subsiding, Israel had initially planned to send a total of 100,000 spare vaccine doses overseas, “in return for things we already have received,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it. Indeed, Guatemala and Honduras, which both handed major diplomatic victories to Netanyahu by agreeing to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, both said in mid-February that they expected to receive shipments from Israel. The Czech Republic, which opened a diplomatic office in Jerusalem last week, has already received 5,000 doses.
However, as word of Netanyahu’s plans spread, he quickly came under scathing criticism for sending vaccines overseas before giving them to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Other critics in Israel expressed disdain that vaccines are being shipped abroad, without Cabinet approval, when many Israeli residents still need to be inoculated. In response to this controversy, Netanyahu’s government halted additional deliveries of vaccines overseas until the attorney general conducts a review of Netanyahu’s authority to approve these initiatives.
Vaccine diplomacy is not the exclusive domain of major powers. Aspiring regional powers, including some smaller countries, are increasingly stepping into the ring.
Despite that hitch, Israel has sought out other ways to use vaccines to further its diplomatic goals. It has reportedly agreed to a U.S. request to provide 2,400 vaccines to members of the 14-country peacekeeping mission stationed in the Sinai Peninsula, in neighboring Egypt. Austria and Denmark, frustrated with the European Union’s own sluggish vaccination program, are now engaged in talks with Israel on the research, procurement and deployment of new booster shots aimed at protecting against new coronavirus variants.
Israel has also reportedly sought to use vaccines as a bargaining chip in sensitive negotiations with its enemies. According to The New York Times, Netanyahu’s government made a behind-the-scenes deal—brokered by Moscow—to finance a shipment of Russian-produced Sputnik V vaccines to Syria in exchange for the safe return of an Israeli woman who had been detained in Syria after illegally crossing the border.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is second only to Israel in vaccinating its citizens, using both the highly effective Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Chinese-produced Sinopharm shot. At the same time, the country has primarily set its sights on becoming a global hub for vaccine distribution, providing storage and cargo space capacities for both Chinese- and Indian-produced vaccines. It has also put its flagship airlines, Etihad and Emirates, at the center of its plans. Through initiatives like its Hope Consortium and Vaccine Logistics Alliance, the UAE is cooperating with the United Nations to provide aircraft logistical support in bolstering the safety and integration of vaccine deliveries throughout the world. Eventually, the Emirati government hopes to also develop its own vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Around the world, small-scale vaccine diplomacy is rapidly becoming ubiquitous, taking many forms. Serbia has donated thousands of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to neighboring North Macedonia and Montenegro, beating the EU and the World Health Organization to the punch. And Estonia, reinforcing its global image as a technological innovator, is partnering with the WHO to pilot a “smart yellow card” that would institute digital vaccine certificates to facilitate the COVAX vaccination drive in developing countries. France and several German states, meanwhile, are both sending thousands of doses to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which have been struggling to combat a recent spike in coronavirus infections.
The French and German cases represent a notable and rare exception to the general trend of the West ceding vaccine diplomacy to other countries. The U.S. and EU have mostly been inclined to let their vaccine developers and manufacturers, not the state, take the spotlight. Even as they focus their resources on ensuring an adequate supply for their own citizens, wealthier countries have provided substantial contributions to COVAX—but those donations tend to garner less positive media attention compared to direct bilateral transfers of vaccines.
For all the talk of vaccine nationalism and export restrictions, the EU has in fact shipped over 34 million doses produced in the bloc to more than 31 countries, as of March 11, even as only 45 million shots have been administered across Europe to their own populations. But these deliveries have similarly garnered little commendation compared to the extravagant public displays and photo ops that have accompanied Russian and Chinese shipments of vaccines.
The U.S., for its part, is likely to take a more prominent role in the months to come. The Biden administration announced earlier this month that it expects to have enough vaccine supply for the U.S. population by the end of May, freeing up the country to become a major player in vaccine diplomacy, if it wishes. Washington, in coordination with India, Japan and Australia, its partners in a group of nations known as the Quad, already announced a plan last week to distribute vaccine doses to countries throughout Asia, a move intended to counter Chinese influence in the region.
It will be tempting for the U.S. and EU to compete with rivals like China and Russia by ensuring they attain plaudits for their vaccine contributions. But they will also need to be careful to avoid bilateral or otherwise selective deals that risk leaving poorer countries excluded. If the world is to truly make a comeback from COVID-19, after all, it will depend on putting a hard brake on the pandemic in all places where the coronavirus might be lurking—regardless of geopolitical advantage.
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