What Vaccine Diplomacy Means for Our Future

Mufid Majnun/Unsplash

Hayley Serpa/Staff Writer

The politicization first seen a few months ago in the race to manufacture the Covid-19 vaccine has now evolved into the politicization of the global vaccination campaign, as the United States, China, Russia and other countries attempt to extend their spheres of influence via the sale of their vaccines. In many ways, these actions resemble those taken primarily by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the ‘Space Race’ of the Cold War period. The most obvious difference is that today the two primary players are the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China, but the same overarching lessons apply. If nothing is done, history is sure to repeat itself with a new cold war using new techniques (like vaccine diplomacy). 

Of all the U.S. or U.S. affiliated vaccines approved for safe use, the Comirnaty or joint Pfizer/BioNTech/Fosun Pharma vaccine has been the most widely used and accepted by the international community. In December of 2020 over one billion doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough to vaccinate 14% of the world’s population, would be bought by the European Union, the U.S., and the United Kingdom. This Western bloc has traditionally maintained good diplomatic relations with each other as well as with other countries, such as Canada, Chile, and Israel, who have all approved Pfizer’s vaccine.

Other vaccines made by this bloc of Western interests have been the U.S.’s Moderna vaccine and the United Kingdom’s Astrazeneca. The Moderna vaccine has only been approved in countries of the Global North like Switzerland and Iceland, partially because of the many requirements needed to store and transfer the vaccine that make them unpracticable for many countries with poor infrastructures. On the other hand, Oxford’s vaccine has recently been shown to have caused many adverse side effects in countries like France, where vaccinated health workers began to experience fevers and nausea, leading it to become unpopular internationally.  

The exclusivity of the vaccine early on, since it was pretty much only in major Western developed countries, would create a political vacuum that was slyly filled by the People’s Republic of China and their different vaccines. One of the most widely used and sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology is the Sinopharm vaccine, which has been authorized in Peru, Bahrain and Egypt, amongst other countries of the Global South. These developing countries were not able to obtain the Pfizer, Moderna, or Astrazeneca vaccines manufactured by the traditional Western bloc, so they turned instead to the Chinese option. 

One of the regions most affected by vaccine diplomacy is Latin America, known for being within the U.S.’s sphere of influence. While most American and European vaccine brands are monopolized by major developed countries, the Chinese brands have prioritized accessibility and affordability. This has permitted the Chinese State to successfully establish itself in the region, especially in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia, who have all purchased vaccine doses from Chinese pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, Paraguay, one of the only countries in the region who recognizes Taiwan as the Republic of China would recently present a motion to recognize Beijing in order to receive more medical supplies from the world power. 

These transnational acts have led the People’s Republic of China to greatly expand its influence over the profitable Latin American countries and to push back against American interests in the region. Not only that, but China currently remains the region’s primary trading partner and more than nineteen countries in South America have joined Chairman Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, strengthening ties between the developing countries of the region and the CCP. The Chinese government has also become greatly involved in Panama, where a 2017 diplomatic switch would lead to President Xi offering to fund 16 projects in the small country in exchange for use of the canal zone. 

However, as we evaluate the increasing tensions between the U.S. and China, the two major countries who have politicized vaccine distribution, we must not forget the actions taken by other countries like Russia and India. Both of these countries have prioritized utilizing their vaccines to expand their influence into other countries, as is seen in Russia offering 300 million doses of it’s Sputnik V vaccine to participating countries of the African Union. The Sputnik V vaccine has also been sold to Argentina for it’s national immunization program. India has also preferred to focus on South America, where it has plans to make a donation of 570 million doses of it’s Indian vaccine to the countries of the Caribbean. 

The international community’s use of vaccine diplomacy, as seen with the cases of the United States, China, Russia, and India, shows the realities of our current period’s international relations. The Western bloc led by the U.S. is in a silent battle of global influence with those of the opposing non-Western bloc led by the increasingly powerful Chinese State. Today, the Cold War we see beginning to brew through the maneuverings of vaccine diplomacy between the United States and China reveals the tense possibilities of our future in the twenty-first century. Unless action is taken soon by the other members of the international community, the world will once again be divided into opposing blocs. 


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.

Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

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