Covid-19 vaccines are not just coveted as protection from the deadly virus, they are also a currency in the battle for global influence, experts say, especially between China and Russia.
While the US has been saving its vaccines for Americans, and Europeans struggle with delivery, Beijing and Moscow, as well as India, have been brushing up their prestige by sharing vaccine stocks with poor, vulnerable countries.
“Getting these vaccines into the arms of billions of people is now the most pressing challenge for the international community. This is, in a manner of speaking, the ‘new arms race’,” according to The Soufan Center, a research body.
China, which was already ahead of the game at the start of the pandemic with the distribution of masks, has been supplying several countries with vaccines, sometimes for free.
Some 200,000 doses each went to Algeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, 500,000 to Pakistan and 750,000 to the Dominican Republic.
“China managed to present itself as a champion of the southern countries at a time when the north showed complete selfishness,” Bertrand Badie, a professor for international relations at Sciences-Po university in Paris, told AFP.
Russia, meanwhile, is proudly distributing its Sputnik V vaccine, named after the first satellites launched by the Soviet Union.
At first derided in Europe, the vaccine has gained in credibility after a positive evaluation in the medical journal The Lancet.
Three EU countries – Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – opted for the Russian vaccine without waiting for approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), as Europe struggles with long delays in vaccine dose deliveries.
‘Way to reclaim power’
“For Russia, to show the world that ultimately it suffered less from the coronavirus than the US, and that Russia is far more efficient (with vaccines) than western European countries, is a way to reclaim power,” Badie told AFP.
“In international relations, the image you project is decisive,” he said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin has an “obsessive will to re-establish Russian power, have parity with the western world, and to be respected”.
Russia is, however, held back by its limited production capacity, and has had to share the spoils of new global influence with China.
Beijing has helped Serbia to become continental Europe’s Covid-19 vaccination leader.
Hungary has ordered five millions of doses from Sinopharm China, enough to vaccinate a third of its population.
“Beijing has been linking measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in aid recipient countries with the prospect of post-pandemic cooperation within the BRI framework,” the massive Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project, according to SWP, a German political research foundation.
“Above all, Beijing wants to be perceived internationally as a ‘responsible great power’,” it said.
“A third Half-Time”
India, which is a vaccine production giant, has begun supplying its neighbours, including Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Smaller countries are also using vaccines as diplomatic ammunition.
Israel, considered as the world champion of vaccination, has supplied doses to Honduras, and also to the Czech Republic which is planning to open a diplomatic representation in Jerusalem.
The United Arab Emirates has been supplying targeted donations to Gaza, a Palestinian territory under Israeli blockade, and to Tunisia.
The EU is falling behind diplomatically, but the race is not over, according to a senior EU diplomat.
The Russians and Chinese proceeded “in a rather uncontrolled way, without going though all the validation steps”, the diplomat said.
“However this is a marathon, there will be a second half-time, maybe even a third,” he said.