Poor countries will remember who came to their aid and when. Moscow and Beijing saw an opportunity early on, sending masks and protective gear to hard-hit countries last spring. Now, as low- and middle-income countries demand vaccines, countries from Serbia and Algeria to Brazil and Egypt are receiving doses from China and Russia. Serbia, in fact, is ahead of most countries in the European Union in the percentage of its population that has been vaccinated, in part because it is one of the few countries where Russian vaccines and Chinese are already available.
China has made sharing of its local vaccines a centerpiece of its “Belt and Road Initiative,” a global strategy to invest in more than 70 countries and international organizations. Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy has had its problems, including a lack of verified information on the effectiveness of its vaccines, but for many poor countries, Chinese vaccines are far better than nothing. Recently, for example, China announced that it would donate 300,000 doses to Egypt.
Russia says it has received orders for its Sputnik V vaccine in around 20 countries – including the southern neighbor of the United States, Mexico, which pledged to receive 7.4 million doses between February and April. After an episode of Covid-19 in late January, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico reported that he received a warm phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin and invited Mr. Putin to visit Mexico. Around the same time, Argentina’s President and Vice-President Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner both received their first punches from Sputnik V.
India, one of the world’s largest producers of generic drugs, has also moved to develop its own vaccines and ship them overseas, in part to counter Chinese awareness. Although India has a population of over 1.3 billion, it has already sent 3.2 million free doses to neighboring countries and has contracts with a host of governments around the world to provide vaccines. One of the reasons India can do this is because it produces more vaccines than it can currently distribute in the country. The UAE, which vaccinates its residents faster than any country except Israel, has also started donating Chinese-made Sinopharm to countries where it has strategic or business interests.
Vaccine diplomacy has its drawbacks. WHO’s Dr Ghebreyesus complained that too many countries and vaccine manufacturers are focusing on reaching bilateral or selective deals, pushing poorer countries aside. That’s the benefit of the WHO’s Covax initiative, and the Biden administration is off to a good start in supporting it.
President Biden assured Americans that most will be vaccinated by the end of the summer. He should also assure them that it is in their best interests, for reasons of morality, common sense and national interest, to be at the forefront of the world war against this vicious little drip to spikes.