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Western nations lag as China, India, Russia lead in COVID-19 vaccine race

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THE United States and other Western countries have fallen behind in the global COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy race, according to multiple reports, including a publication by the World Politics Review. But the governments of China, Russia and India are using vaccines produced in their countries to expand spheres of influence across the world.

“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,” the report published on worldpoliticsreview.com on March 18, 2021, said.

In a related report, the New York Times noted that the US administration led by President Joe Biden was under pressure to play catch-up on vaccine diplomacy. The US vaccine policy, which insists that Americans come first, has made the country’s authorities avoid making commitments towards giving away American-made vaccines.

“The United States has fallen far behind China, India and Russia in the race to marshal coronavirus vaccines as an instrument of diplomacy,” the New York Times reported, noting that Biden was facing accusations of ‘vaccine hoarding’ from global health advocates who wanted his administration to channel supplies to needy nations in desperate for access.

While the Biden administration is still planning its strategy to counter China’s growing global influence, the East Asian country is burnishing its image by shipping doses of vaccine to dozens of countries on several continents, including Africa, South America and South East Asia.

Reuters reported that Russia and China were currently engaged in a race to plug the COVID-19 vaccine gap in Africa, hoping to cement their influence in the continent which had received very few doses due to the hoarding of supplies by the US and other Western nations prioritising inoculation of their own citizens.

Russia has offered 300 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine, with financing, to an African Union (AU) scheme, according to Reuters.

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Over the past month, China has been shipping more than one million doses of vaccine each week across Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. China has also provided 10 million vaccine doses to developing nations through the World Health Organisation  (WHO)’s COVAX initiative.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the country was working towards providing vaccine to more than 60 countries. As of March 1, 2021, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone had received Chinese vaccine. China says it plans to send supplies to an additional 16 countries in Africa.

Also, Russia has supplied its vaccine, Sputnik V, to some European countries, including Hungary and Slovakia. Millions of doses of Sputnik V have been delivered to countries from Laos to Argentina to Serbia, according a report by Euronews.

With the EU struggling to make available European-manufactured vaccines, Russia has also offered to supply 50 million more doses to Europe. On March 9, 2021, the Russian government announced that Sputnik V would be produced in Italy from July at the factories of the Italian-Swiss pharmaceutical company Adienne in Lombardy. Going by projections, 10 million doses will be produced between July 1 and January 1, 2022, in addition to millions being made by firms in South Korea, Brazil and India.

However, most European nations will not purchase Russia’s vaccine as it has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

India is regarded as the fastest rising player in the global vaccine diplomacy race.

Licensed to manufacture Covishield, the Indian label for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that was developed in the United Kingdom, India has become a vaccine diplomacy leader. More than 50 million doses  are produced a month at the Serum Institute of India, a company based in Pune, in the western state of Maharashtra, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines.

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With the volume of vaccine produced outpacing India’s home needs, the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has 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.

Under the programme termed Vaccine Maitri, or Vaccine Friendship, the Indian government focuses the initiative first on its neighbours and partners in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. By March 1, 2021, India had sent 36 million doses of vaccines to countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Oman, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Domincan Republic.

According to the Indian government’s external affairs ministry, out of the 36 million doses, 6 million were given out as aid, while 29.4 million were despatched on a commercial basis.

India has also become a major contributor to COVAX, a global initiative that aims to ensure equitable access of vaccines to poorer nations. In late February 2020, about 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, were shipped to Ghana, making the African country the first to receive vaccines under the COVAX arrangement. Also, the 3.92 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine received by Nigeria through the COVAX Facility were manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

Analysts believe that the US status as a global leader, which has taken a hit due to the restrictive and nationalistic policies former President Donald Trump, would further diminish if the Biden administration does not play a leading role in providing vaccine to poor countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tom Hart, North America executive director of One Campaign, a non-profit organisation dedicated to eradicating global poverty, which was founded by U2 singer Bono, said, “It is time the US leaders ask themselves: when this pandemic is over, do we want to remember America’s leadership helping to distribute lifesaving vaccines or will we leave it to others?”

Meanwhile, in a bid to catch-up on the global vaccine ‘diplomacy race,’ the White House on March 20, 2021, said millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines currently sitting in US warehouses would be shipped to vaccination sites in Mexico and Canada.

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“The donation marks one of the US’ first steps into the dawning – and deeply contentious – world of late-stage pandemic vaccine diplomacy,” a report by theverge.com said.

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