RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The race to find a vaccine against Covid-19 has transcended medical interest to also include a geopolitical focus, in which Russia and China, with their powerful public institutions, are competing with private pharmaceutical companies in the West, forging new alliances that extend beyond these countries’ traditional partners.
The global race involves over 200 formulas in development, 60 of which are currently in clinical trials, but the focus is on a handful of vaccines that have already been approved by government health authorities.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have rushed ahead with vaccines that they not only quickly released to immunize their populations (the Russian leader made his announcement almost six months ago, on August 11th), but also to use as a key export tool, thereby illustrating that the scientific race is also politically driven. In both cases, the lack of scientific data was initially viewed with suspicion, but last week prestigious journal The Lancet confirmed that the Russian Sputnik V has a 91.6 percent efficacy.
Meanwhile, lower-income countries, many of them severely affected by the pandemic, are closely following the dispute. Some of them, even if they had the money, have seen how wealthier states hoarded the market for the first approved immunizers, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. Faced with this scenario, and the inertia of the World Health Organization’s “COVAX” program, China and Russia emerge as the only hope for leaders under pressure from an electorate that demands efficient management.
Since then, Beijing and Moscow have closed commercial agreements on every continent.
The first deals involved close political allies. The Gamaleya Institute, which produces the Sputnik V, quickly sat down to negotiate with envoys from Belarus, Iran, Venezuela, Algeria, Serbia, and Hungary; the Chinese laboratories received representatives from Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates. But it was not long before both countries extended their horizons, holding talks with non-aligned countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Egypt or Tunisia.
According to the Sputnik V website (a name borrowed from the Cold War space satellite, in case there were any doubts about its context), more than two million people worldwide have been administered a dose, including leaders such as Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández. Xi Jinping’s propaganda machine does not sleep either: according to the Global Times official newspaper, more than twenty countries “have challenged the Western media’s defamation” and purchased Chinese vaccines.
“For China, this is part of its soft power strategy. They have been playing this role for years in Africa, where they have built many health infrastructure facilities, and also some in the Middle East or in the Caribbean,” says Marcela Vieira, of the Center for Global Health at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Officially, Xi’s regime has assured that it will not use its vaccines as a diplomatic tool, but in some public statements senior officials have linked the drugs to enhanced cooperation. Last June, when no vaccine was ready yet, China went ahead and offered a generous credit to Latin American countries to access the formulas: US$1 billion.
Rafael Vilasanjuan, Director of Analysis and Development at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), believes that “vaccines have thus become another weapon in the geopolitical battle,” with Moscow and Beijing rushing to “fill the void” left by the United States with bilateral agreements that complement the work of the COVAX facility, promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in middle-income countries.
From the standpoint of developing countries, the purchase of Chinese and Russian vaccines is not only a political factor, of lower prices or the possibility of purchase. Also, from a logistical perspective, when faced with poorly modernized healthcare systems, it is easier to plan a vaccination campaign with doses that do not require deep-freezing, as is the case with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the first to be approved in the United States.
While some surveys show a lower confidence in the Russian and Chinese vaccines, these countries believe that perceptions will change as study results continue to be released. Moreover, they could be capitalizing on crises in the West, such as the institutional malaise in the United States and the political turmoil unleashed by Brexit. Even France and Germany, the heart of the European Union, have already shown interest in Eastern vaccines.
In political terms, David Fidler, Global Health expert at the U.S. think tank Council on Foreign Relations, alerted that the advance of Russia and China is troubling. “I understand that it makes sense from a health standpoint. But the other side of the coin is that when Merkel says ‘welcome Sputnik’ she is lending credibility to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the one that just jailed its leading dissident, Alexei Navalny. Or to China that oppresses the Uighurs and crushes democracy in Hong Kong.”
The power of Moscow and Beijing could expand with a new alliance, as sources quoted by Bloomberg have advanced that the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a partner in the Sputnik V program, is currently engaged in talks with the Chinese CanSino Biologics company to test a combined vaccine formula that would address the new coronavirus strains detected in recent weeks.
For the Kremlin, the vaccine testifies to the excellence of a Russia despised and sanctioned by the West. Putin describes the Sputnik V as the “best vaccine in the world”. It also represents the return of Russian research to the world’s scientific elite. This sector had been severely hampered by crises and corruption since the collapse of the USSR.
Russia quickly showed its willingness to distribute the vaccine throughout the world, to prove that it knew how to do more than export weapons, minerals and hydrocarbons. However, what Moscow really wants is to develop cooperative projects to produce the vaccine in local plants. At the moment, Kazakhstan, India, South Korea and Brazil are producing the Sputnik V, although so far most of them have not yet applied it in their populations.
In China, authorities have pledged to share their vaccine at a fair price, good news for many Asian countries, which will otherwise be dependent on the free delivery of doses through the COVAX facility for low-income countries. This week, Beijing pledged ten million doses to the fund.
Countries such as Senegal, Hungary and Indonesia have purchased millions of doses of the Chinese vaccine. However, the adoption of the Chinese vaccine abroad is slower than in the case of Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s immunizers, due to insufficient data supplied by China.
Moreover, the reputation of Chinese laboratories has also been tarnished by past scandals in the country over expired or substandard products. There are also concerns about Chinese mafias: this week, the Asian giant’s police dismantled a network of fake vaccine traffickers, with the arrest of more than 80 suspects and the seizure of over 3,000 syringes containing salt water. According to the Global Times newspaper, the traffickers “were possibly considering selling the vaccines abroad.”