A beneficiary will be vaccinated by medical staff on January 16, 2021 in Pune, India, during a vaccination campaign against Covid-19 across India at Aundh District Hospital.
Pratham Gokhale | Hindustan Times | Getty Images
SINGAPORE – With the mass vaccination campaigns against Covid-19 going on around the world, a gap is emerging between rich and poor nations in their ability to secure enough shots to immunize their populations.
Wealthy nations have been accused of hoarding vaccines, mostly from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. This has created space for India, China and, to some extent, Russia to develop, manufacture and supply vaccines for the developing world. Experts say these efforts can potentially strengthen these countries’ influence and deepen their relationships with other nations.
It enables them to play a leadership role “that serves their foreign policy goals but serves their … commercial interest in increasing the market share of their vaccines,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow on global health at the Foreign Relations Council CNBC by phone.
“In the meantime, it is also helping to alleviate the huge disparities in vaccine access between rich and poor nations,” he added.
The world is facing catastrophic moral failure – and the price for that failure is paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Director General of the World Health Organization
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that drug makers are prioritizing approval in rich countries where profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to a WHO-backed global vaccine distribution initiative to advance.
“The world is facing catastrophic moral failure – and the price for that failure is paid for with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” said Tedros.
“Political Benevolence and Influence”
According to media reports, India has already sent 1 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to Nepal, 2 million to Bangladesh, 150,000 to Bhutan, 100,000 to Maldives and 1.5 million to Myanmar. It also sent 2 million cans to Brazil.
India has approved two emergency vaccines – one developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, made locally by the Serum Institute of India, and the other, called Covaxin, which was developed domestically.
According to Akhil Bery, South Asia political risk analyst at Eurasia Group, vaccination diplomacy can be an effective use of soft power that can help New Delhi make friends and generate goodwill.
India wants to improve its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder, while China wants to improve its reputation, which was tarnished in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Observer Research Foundation
“India’s generosity to its neighbors can help improve relations, be it with Bangladesh (which has been tense due to the change of citizenship law) or Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksas are known to have a pro-Chinese tendency,” Bery said CNBC via email. The Rajapaksas are a prominent political family in Sri Lanka – both the country’s president and prime minister are part of the family.
“While the doses are not that high, they are significant enough to relieve pressure on healthcare systems and allow resources to be allocated elsewhere,” added Bery.
With the virus largely under control at home, China’s strategy is to sign contracts with emerging economies to conduct clinical trials for a vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinovac and to help build vaccine production facilities in some of those countries. Beijing also gives priority access to its vaccines in countries such as Southeast Asia, which are of strategic importance to China. In other places, the country offers loans to finance vaccine procurement.
Eurasia Group’s Chinese researcher Allison Sherlock told CNBC that the benefits for China are in strengthening economic and political ties within its existing sphere of influence in regions such as Southeast Asia. There, Beijing “particularly hopes the vaccine will help repair relationships strained by tensions across the South China Sea, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.”
“India wants to improve its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder while China wants to improve its reputation, which was tarnished in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Harsh Pant, director of strategic studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New -Delhi.
“Both would hope that their reach would also give them political goodwill and influence,” he told CNBC via email.
The coronavirus was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019, and Beijing has been criticized for its early handling of the pandemic.
Given the nature of Sino-India relations, experts said it was inevitable that New Delhi and Beijing’s efforts to provide vaccines to other countries would be viewed from a competitive perspective. Both India and China have downplayed the notion of vaccine diplomacy, describing the shocks as a necessary public good to combat the global pandemic.
India, which launched its domestic vaccination campaign this month, does not produce or use Covid vaccines as a kind of diplomacy, former Indian Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia told CNBC. “It’s a national effort first,” he said.
“Vaccines are primarily intended to help the people of the country, but India has not forgotten its global responsibility,” said Bhatia. He stated that India’s efforts would help raise the international reputation of the country’s scientists and products. The shots “will have positive effects beyond isolating people from the disease. They will increase national pride and confidence.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded on Monday to questions about India’s plans to send vaccines to its neighbors, saying, “This problem cannot accommodate vicious competition, let alone so-called” rivalry. “We hope and welcome that more doses of safer and more effective vaccines are being made faster by more countries. “
Beijing has stepped up efforts domestically to immunize key populations ahead of next month’s New Year celebrations, when many are expected to travel across the country. Reuters reported that China has approved three emergency vaccines, but only one for the general public, while a fourth is used by the military.
Chinese health care workers and volunteers wear protective clothing when registering people to receive a Covid-19 vaccine sting at a mass vaccination center for the Chaoyang District in Beijing, China, Jan. 15, 2021.
Kevin Frayer | Getty Images News | Getty Images
CFR’s Huang said he felt a shift in China’s strategy, with Beijing starting to prioritize domestic needs but still delivering on promises. He explained that China is likely to rely more on countries that have signed partnership agreements to manufacture its vaccines and use them to aid other nations. China could also “provide financial support so (other countries) can buy vaccines from other sources,” Huang added.
One of the challenges facing locally developed vaccines in India and China is their effectiveness in fighting the disease.
India’s Covaxin is still in clinical trials. At the time it received an emergency clearance from the Medicines Agency, it did not have extensive data from Phase 3 studies to determine its effectiveness or safety. The hasty move has been criticized by scientists.
In clinical studies in Brazil, Sinovac’s CoronaVac was found to be only 50.4% effective, but has produced different results elsewhere, leading to concerns and criticism of data transparency.
“When you have a vaccine that is only 50% effective, you can argue that more people need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity,” said CFR’s Huang.
He added that India and China, both of which have large populations, have to grapple with meeting domestic needs while maintaining international commitments and demand.
“This will further complicate the problem in their leadership efforts by narrowing the vaccine access gap,” he said.
Bery of the Eurasia Group said one advantage of India is that the Serum Institute is one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers and that the country supplies more than 50% of the world’s vaccines.
“It will take time, but as we have seen from South Africa and Brazil, countries are lining up to get access to Indian-made vaccines,” he said.
However, Bery said China has its own advantage – unlike its South Asian rival, it got the pandemic under control much faster, allowing the Chinese economy to recover faster.
“This allowed him to step up international policies while other countries like India remained distracted from the pandemic,” Bery said.