Bangalore- As mass vaccination campaigns are conducted against Covid-19 globally, there is an emerging gap between rich and poor nations in their abilities to secure enough shots to immunize their people.
Moreover, the wealthy nations have been accused of hoarding vaccines, highly from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. It has created enough room for China, India, and Russia to develop, produce and supply vaccines to the developing world. As per the experts, these efforts can potentially bolster those countries’ influence and deepen ties with other nations.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations told a new channel “While it serves their foreign policy objectives, it serves their… commercial interest to expand the market share of their vaccine products.” He also added, “In the meantime, it also helps mitigate the vast disparities in terms of vaccine access between the wealthy nations and the poor nations.”
In the last week, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that drugmaker prioritized regulatory approval in rich countries where the profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to expedite a global vaccine distribution initiative supported by the WHO.
Tedros also said, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure- and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”
Political influence and good wills
Almost India has spent around 1 million covid-19 vaccine does to Nepal, 2 million to Bangladesh, 150,000 to Bhutan, 100,000 to the Maldives, and 1.5 million to Myanmar, per media reports. Additionally, it has also led 2 million doses to Brazil.
Additionally, India approved two vaccines for emergency utilization. One was developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University which has been locally produced by Serum Institute of India and another vaccine which was developed domestically named Covaxin.
According to Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, vaccine diplomacy can be an effective use of soft power that can help New Delhi win friends and generating good wills.
Bery informed a news channel that, “India’s generosity with its neighbors can help to mend ties, whether it be with Bangladesh (which was strained due to the Citizenship Amendment Act), or with Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksas are known to have a pro-China tilt.” The Rajapaksas are a prominent political family in Sri Lanka- both the country’s president and prime minister are part of the family.
Bery also added, “even if the does aren’t that many, it’s still significant enough to alleviate pressure on the healthcare systems, allowing for resources to be allocated elsewhere.”
As the virus is mostly under control at home, “China’s strategy contains striking deals with emerging economies to conduct clinical trials for a vaccine developed by Chinese firms Sinovac and helps in building vaccine production facilities in some of those countries. Beijing is giving higher priority access to its vaccines in places like Southeast Asia, which is of strategic importance to China. On the other hand, the country is offering loans to fund vaccine procurement.
Allison Sherlock, Eurasia Group’s China researcher, told a news reporter that the advantage for China is limited to reinforcing political and economic ties in its existing sphere of influence in regions including Southeast Asia. There, Beijing “is especially hoping that the vaccine will help repair relationships strained by tensions over the South China Sea, including with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.”
“India wants to burnish its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder while China would like to improve its reputation which got tarnished in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Harsh Pant, head of the strategic studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
He also informed that “Both would be hoping that their outreach would give them some political goodwill and influence as well.”
The coronavirus was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019 and Beijing has faced criticism over its early handling of the pandemic.
Assumed the nature of Sino-Indian ties, experts believed it was inevitable that New Delhi and Beijing’s efforts in providing vaccines to other countries would be viewed through a competitive lens. Both India and China have restrained the notion of vaccine diplomacy, unfolding the jabs as an essential public good to tackle the global pandemic.
India, which kicked off its domestic vaccination campaign this month, is not manufacturing or using Covid vaccines as a kind of diplomacy, former Indian ambassador Rajiv Bhatia told a news reporter. “It is very much first a national effort,” he said.
“Vaccines are primarily to help the country’s people but India has not forgotten its global responsibility,” Bhatia said. He explained that India’s efforts would help to enrich the international status of the country’s scientists and products. The shots “will have a positive impact beyond insulating people from this disease. It will add to the national pride and confidence.”
On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to questions about India’s plans to send vaccines to its neighbors and said, “This issue can afford no place for malign competition, let alone the so-called ‘rivalry’. We hope and welcome that more doses of safe and effective vaccines will be manufactured at a faster pace by more countries.”
Beijing has stepped up domestic efforts to immunize key groups of people ahead of the Lunar New Year next month when many are expected to travel around the country. Reuters reported that China approved three vaccines for emergency use but only one for the general public, while a fourth is being used by the military.
CFR’s Huang said he sensed a shift in China’s strategy in which Beijing is starting to highlight domestic needs more, but is still following through on promises. He elucidated that China is likely to depend more on countries that have signed partnership agreements to produce its vaccines and use that to support other nations. Huang added China may also “provide financial assistance so that (other countries) can buy the vaccines from other sources.”
One of the key challenges vaccines developed locally in India and China face is their effectiveness in combating the disease. India’s Covaxin is still undergoing clinical trials. At the time it received an emergency endorsement from the drug regulator, it did not have wide phase three trial data to regulate its efficacy or safety. The rushed move was criticized by scientists.
Sinovac’s CoronaVac was found to be only 50.4% effective in clinical trials carried out in Brazil but has yielded different results elsewhere, raising concern and criticism over data transparency.
CFR’s Huang said, “An argument can be made if you have a vaccine whose efficacy rate is as low as 50%, you need more people to get vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.” He added that India and China, both of which have large populations, will have to grapple with fulfilling domestic needs while maintaining international obligations and demand. He also said, “That is going to further complicate the issue in their efforts to play a leadership role by reducing the vaccine access gap.”
Eurasia Group’s Bery said that one advantage India has 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’ve seen from South Africa and Brazil, countries are lining up to gain access to vaccines manufactured in India,” he said.
Bery explained, however, China has its distinct advantage – unlike its South Asian rival, it has brought the pandemic under control much quicker, and thus the Chinese economy has recovered faster. “This allowed it to increase international policy actions, while other countries, such as India, remained distracted by the pandemic,” Bery said.