Jabs with strings attached

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 19 2021

By Michael Gregson

Vaccines are the new diplomacy with Europe and the U.S. lagging in the contest to win  geopolitical clout.

Countries around the world have been plunged into tense talks over vaccine supplies that have threatened to boil over into full-blown trade wars, with rich nations squabbling with each other while poorer nations look on, waiting for help.

China and Russia seem to be handing out jabs in a bid for influence. China is sending out more than 60 per cent of its doses to other countries; similarly with Russia, which is exporting tens of millions of its Sputnik jabs. 

China, unlike the United States and the European Union, has prioritised vaccine exports over domestic distribution. The comprehensive aid programme intends to repair some of the damage done to Beijing’s reputation by the pandemic and to solidify its image as a generous donor and ally. 

China has exported over 115 million vaccine doses, nearly double the number of India and the EU. There’s just one drawback: The Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, aren’t inspiring confidence.

Just how effective China’s vaccines are remains unclear, as no firm has yet published its late-stage test data. Earlier results for Sinovac in Brazil reported efficacy as low as 50.4 per cent, while other tests show efficacy up to 80 per cent. China’s own science and medical sector also has recurrent problems with falsified or non-existent data.

The poor reputation of the Chinese vaccines is already causing distribution problems, even in countries with close ties to Beijing. In Kyrgyzstan, some doctors are refusing Sinopharm doses, choosing to hold out for Russian vaccines instead. Only 39 per cent of people in Hong Kong say they will get the vaccine. But many countries still facing a surge in coronavirus cases, such as Papua New Guinea, are eager for anything that can help stem the tide.

Most concerning is that some countries that use Chinese vaccines, including the United Arab Emirates and Chile, have relatively high vaccination rates, but new cases are still rising. Death rates have fallen somewhat, however, suggesting the Chinese vaccines have some mitigating effect, even if they are not blocking transmission as well as the Western vaccines. 

Russia is busy promoting its Sputnik V vaccine around Europe and the rest of the world. On social media it has engineered excitement with the offer of free trips to Russia, Sputnik jabs included. It is appealing directly to Europeans frustrated over their inability to get vaccinated at home. “Have you entered our competition yet?” goes one message on Sputnik’s Instagram account.

While eager to vaccinate the rest of the world, President Putin has shown little interest in promoting Sputnik at home. Only about six per cent of the population have been vaccinated and, according to one recent poll, 62 per cent of Russians are opposed to having the jab. 

When Putin had his first inoculation it was behind closed doors: when asked why he had not followed the example of other world leaders who have been filmed, he said he had not wanted to be a “performing monkey”. 

Russia experts say that Moscow sees the vaccine more as a tool for spreading influence overseas than protecting its people. “The Kremlin is playing a long game, interested only in spreading chaos and divisions in Europe and undermining the credibility of democracies in general,” said Jakub Kalensky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks State-backed disinformation. “I think it would be wise to be sceptical.” 

Sri Lanka recently received 600,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which will be used for the vaccination of about 200,000 Chinese workers estimated to be living in the island nation. Although Sri Lanka’s National Medicine Regulatory Authority (NMRA) has approved the decision to bring in the Chinese vaccine, the agency has not given the green light for its use on locals. 

Sri Lankan security analyst Asanga Abeyagoonasekera told the German news agency DW that there are “serious concerns that China is raising pressure on Sri Lankan authorities to get approval for the Sinopharm vaccine Authorities in Colombo are taking their time. They have asked many questions and awaiting response from China,” he said. 

There is growing concern that where vaccines go, China’s influence will follow. “Vaccine diplomacy will definitely add to the infrastructure diplomacy and will further strengthen the bilateral relationship,” Abeyagoonasekera said. 

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 19 2021

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