Health & Fitness

As Russia and China attempt to enhance their world affect, analysts warn that vaccine diplomacy will keep right here

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Workers unload the cargo from a Hungarian Airbus 330 plane after transporting the first doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine against the coronavirus (Covid-19) at Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport on February 16, 2021.

ZOLTAN MATH | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON – International diplomacy is likely to determine who gets access to coronavirus vaccines in the coming months, analysts told CNBC. Countries like Russia and China use one of the most sought-after commodities in the world to advance their own interests abroad.

It is hoped that the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines could help end the pandemic. While many countries have not yet started vaccination programs, even high-income countries face a supply shortage as manufacturers struggle to stimulate production.

Russia and China made the distribution of face masks and protective equipment to hard-hit countries a central principle of diplomatic relations last year. Now both countries are taking a transactional approach to the delivery of vaccines.

Agathe Demarais, Global Forecasting Director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC over the phone that Russia, China and, to a lesser extent, India are betting on providing Covid vaccines to emerging or low-income countries to advance their interests.

"Russia and China have been doing this for a long, long time … especially in emerging markets because they feel that traditional Western powers have withdrawn from those countries," Demarais said.

"In the past we have seen China launch the Belt and Road Initiative, when in fact it still does. We have seen Russia do a number of things, especially in the Middle Eastern countries with nuclear power plants has undertaken, and vaccine diplomacy is new brick all over the building in its attempt to build its global reputation. "

Vaccination timeline

That strategy is likely to lead Russia and China to cement long-term presence in countries around the world, Demarais said, noting that the fundamental importance of vaccines to the population will make it "super, super difficult" for countries in the future to withstand diplomatic pressure.

The problem for Moscow and Beijing, however, is that "there is a big, big chance" that they both promise too much and deliver too little, she added.

Russia's Sputnik V vaccine and China's Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines have already started rolling out globally. A total of 26 countries, including Argentina, Hungary, Tunisia and Turkmenistan, have approved the Russian Covid vaccine. China's customers include Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

A health worker receives the Sputnik V vaccine at the Centenario Hospital in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, when the vaccination campaign against the novel coronavirus Covid-19 began in Argentina on December 29, 2020.

STR | AFP | Getty Images

According to analysts, both Russia and China have typically signed supply contracts that strengthen existing political alliances. However, production problems with western-made vaccines could be an incentive for some nontraditional allies to look to Moscow and Beijing.

Russia and China are currently unable to meet their respective home markets' vaccine needs and continue to export to countries around the world. Production is the main hurdle to this challenge, while many high-income countries have pre-ordered more cans than they need.

We don't currently have a system at international level to ensure, for example, that you can adjust the effectiveness of the vaccine to the variant in which a variant is in circulation.

Suerie Moon

Co-Director of GHC at the Graduate Institute Geneva

A report released last month by the Economist Intelligence Unit forecast that most of the adult populations in advanced economies would be vaccinated by the middle of next year. In contrast, this period extends to early 2023 for many middle-income countries and even until 2024 for some low-income countries.

It highlights the global mismatch between supply and demand and the wide gap between high and low income countries when it comes to access to vaccines.

Last month, the World Health Organization's top official warned that the world was on the verge of "catastrophic moral failure" because of unequal Covid vaccination policies.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Jan. 18 that it was clear that, even though some countries and companies speak the language of fair access to vaccines, they are still prioritizing bilateral deals, bypassing COVAX, raising prices and trying to jump up the line . "

"That's wrong," he added.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks after Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, during the 148th session of the Executive Board on the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, January 21, 2021.

Christopher Black | WHO | via Reuters

Tedros condemned what he called the "I-first approach" from high-income countries, saying it was self-destructive and endangered the world's poorest and most vulnerable. Almost all high-income countries have prioritized the distribution of vaccines to their own populations.

When asked if there is any prospect of countries changing their so-called me-first approach following the WHO warning about vaccine diplomacy, Demarais replied, "No. It won't happen. I'm following it very closely and it's all very depressing . "

"The Big Challenge"

COVAX is one of the three pillars of the so-called Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which was introduced last April by the WHO, the European Commission and France. It focuses on equitable access of Covid diagnostics, treatments and vaccines to help less affluent countries.

Analysts have long been skeptical about how efficiently COVAX can deliver supplies of Covid vaccines to middle and low income countries around the world, despite several heads of state calling for global solidarity at the start of the pandemic.

The international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres has described what we are seeing today in terms of global access to vaccines as "far from an image of justice".

"The big challenge is that every time a country signs a bilateral agreement, it becomes all the more difficult to put vaccines into the multilateral pot via COVAX," said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. said CNBC by phone.

Adding to this concern, Moon said, "We currently have no system at the international level to ensure, for example, that you can reconcile the effectiveness of the vaccine with the variant of a circulating variant."

She cited South Africa as an impressive example. Earlier this month, South Africa suspended the launch of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after a study raised questions about its effectiveness against a highly infectious variant first discovered in the country.

"In a rational and ethical world, South Africa would suddenly have access to vaccines that are effective against its variant, and the AstraZeneca vaccines could be sent to another part of the world that does not have that variant. That would be the rational way you do it, but we just haven't made arrangements for this type of transaction, "said Moon.

"Ideally, something like this happens when you have strong international collaboration, but I think the reality is that it will be a mess," she continued.

"We're going to have vaccines that expire in some countries if they could be used elsewhere. We're going to have vaccines effective in one place, but they're not in the right place (and) we're going to have excess vaccines as a security." measure, while in another country people have nothing. "

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Katherine Clark