The Atlantic

Here’s How Russia and China Are Helping the U.S.

Beijing and Moscow are filling the vaccine gap that wealthy countries helped create.

While Western countries spar over access to the world’s vaccine supply, China and Russia have been busy giving away theirs. This distribution of millions of doses, either for free or cheaply, to low- and middle-income nations has been met with skepticism by leaders in the United States and Europe, many of whom have raised concerns over the safety of the jabs, as well as Beijing’s and Moscow’s motivations for sharing them.

In their telling, Chinese and Russian vaccines lack transparent data about their efficacy, and are being leveraged as a form of soft power to bolster the countries’ global standing. More fundamentally, China and Russia are using their jabs to entrench their presence in parts of the world where they seek greater sway, as part of a “vaccine war of influence.”

All of this is undoubtedly true. But if a war is taking place, the U.S. and Europe have been notably absent, prioritizing their domestic needs instead. This inward focus, coupled with the vaccine nationalism that has seen wealthy countries dominate the available supply, has created an accessibility gap that Beijing and Moscow have proved all too willing to fill. Though U.S. and European leaders might not like it, they are effectively complaining about a problem that they helped create, and, paradoxically, they are undermining their own interests—in fact, Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy is helping the West.

Before the pandemic, neither of the two countries was particularly known for vaccine production. But when COVID-19 began spreading, both sensed an opportunity. For China, it was a chance to reshape the narrative so that the country would be remembered as the source not of the pandemic, but of the solutions that brought it to an end. Russia, meanwhile, saw the opportunity to showcase its science and technology. China had produced more than 225 million doses as of March 26, nearly half of which were sent abroad, according to Airfinity, a London-based science-analytics company that tracks global vaccine production. Russia is responsible for 14 million doses, 31 percent of which have been exported elsewhere.

The U.S. has produced just less than a quarter of the world’s vaccine supply, though scarcely any of it has gone beyond its own borders. Of the 164 million doses made in the country, it has agreed to part with only 4 million doses of its AstraZeneca stockpile, which the Biden administration committed to give to its neighbors in Canada and Mexico. Across the Atlantic, Britain and the European Union have also largely been consumed by their domestic needs.

The U.S. and its European partners have contributed billions of dollars to a multilateral initiative aimed at equalizing vaccine distribution around the world, but it guarantees to provide participating countries with only enough doses to cover 20 percent of their population, a far cry from herd immunity.

That’s where China and Russia come in. The pair have supplied vaccines to 49 and 22 countries, respectively, across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Brazil, which is once again the global epicenter of the pandemic, has struck deals securing tens of millions of doses of Russian and Chinese vaccines. Venezuela is relying solely on Russian and Chinese jabs. In the Middle East, even strategic U.S. partners such as Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have turned to them for supplies.

For many of these countries, accepting the vaccines isn’t a political decision so much as a public-health one. Czech President Miloš Zeman, who has long sought closer ties with Beijing and Moscow, has been a vocal proponent of using their jabs—a decision he says has less to do with his own foreign policy than with the state of the pandemic in the country, which has the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate per capita. “In a war—which this situation is, though we fight against an invisible enemy—you need to do whatever you can to make it stop,” Zeman told me in an email. “I frankly don’t think that receiving vaccines means losing independence, or any similar repercussions. It’s a business deal, for God’s sake.”

Russia and China are not the only countries engaging in vaccine diplomacy. India and, to a smaller extent, Israel have both sought to export doses to select countries as a means of generating strategic goodwill and furthering their diplomatic interests. The main difference, of course, is that India and Israel aren’t Western adversaries, nor are they using vaccines that haven’t been approved by Western public-health institutions. The West stands to gain from India’s and Israel’s vaccine diplomacy as much as it does from China’s and Russia’s: The distribution of safe and effective vaccines, regardless of where they come from, is vital to ending this global crisis. By bridging the accessibility gap, India and Israel, much like China and Russia, are contributing to that aim.

This isn’t to say that China’s and Russia’s strategies are faultless. U.S. and European leaders have leveled plenty of legitimate criticisms against their vaccine drive, including their aggressive sales tactics, their lack of transparency, and their efforts to undermine trust in other vaccines. But Western countries haven’t offered any alternatives. The U.S. and Britain, both of which have excelled at their vaccine rollout, have committed to sharing their surplus doses only after their needs are met. Though French President Emmanuel Macron has called for the EU to share its doses with countries that need them, the bloc also has its own vaccine shortage to deal with—a crisis that has prompted some of its member states, including Hungary and Slovakia, to appeal to China and Russia for vaccines despite none having EU regulatory approval. As Europe undergoes its third wave of COVID-19, leaders in Germanyand Italy are considering doing the same.

China’s and Russia’s vaccine diplomacy isn’t driven by altruism, but whose is? If Russia and China’s vaccines are safe and effective as is claimed (Russia’s Sputnik V was found to be 91 percent effective, according to a peer-reviewed report by The Lancet medical journal; China’s state-backed Sinopharm vaccine claims 79 percent efficacy, though Beijing hasn’t been as forthcoming with its trial data), surely they are better alternative to no vaccine at all? When I put these questions to Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, he said that fears of Moscow and Beijing leveraging their influence over receiving countries are overblown. “We grossly exaggerate the payoff you get from trying to play geopolitics with humanitarian crises,” McFaul said. Plus, “it doesn’t do any good to say that China or Russia are using their vaccines to undermine our interests if you don’t have something else to offer.”

Western countries could yet choose to engage in their own vaccine diplomacy. At a virtual summit this month, leaders of the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan agreed to collaborate on the production of 1 billion doses of the Johnson & Johnson jab by the end of 2022, in an apparent effort to counter China’s vaccine drive in the Indo-Pacific.

But countries that desperately need vaccines are unlikely to be able to wait that long, nor is it necessarily in the world’s interest that they do so. It’s well established that the pandemic won’t meaningfully end anywhere unless it is addressed everywhere—something that can be achieved only through mass vaccination. With global supplies still largely limited, it’s in everyone’s interest that safe and effective doses make it into as many arms as possible, irrespective of who happens to be providing them. In that sense, leaders in the U.S. and Europe should embrace the Chinese and Russian efforts, which—regardless of their intent—serve to help the West too.

“The more people that are vaccinated, the better it is for the health of the American people,” McFaul said. “It’s just that simple.”

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.