Vaccine Diplomacy

Patient receiving COVID Vaccine (Photo by Christian Emmer)

As the world grapples with surging infection rates and novel, complex variants, vaccine distribution remains the world’s biggest supply challenge.

In the early stages of the pandemic, rumors of an imminent vaccine occasionally made mainstream news. Particularly, the Sputnik V vaccine, produced by Russia and announced in May 2020, was met with skepticism and concerns of efficacy.

In 2022, vaccine production has allowed billions to be inoculated, with about 48.3% of the world’s population fully vaccinated. Yet while certainly significant, 48.3% is not enough to prevent the emergence and rapid spread of COVID variants, such as the Omnicron variant that has resulted in staggeringly high infection rates. But even if vaccine skepticism in modern countries didn’t stop millions from being vaccinated, lack of access to vaccines in developing nations may prolong the pandemic, even indefinitely.

Vaccine Distribution

The United States has pledged to donate more than 1 billion vaccines across the globe in an effort to curb worldwide infection. To date, ~42% of vaccine donations have been Moderna, with most donations funneled to Africa and Asia. The U.S. is not alone either; the E.U., India, and China, among others, have all been distributing vaccines throughout the world, many using the global organization COVAX. Founded in April 2020 by the WHO, it is a multilateral initiative for vaccine deployment worldwide, with both national and private donors. Joining in early January due to Trump’s reticence regarding vaccine donation, the U.S. has nonetheless become a driving force in vaccine distribution, coordinating with the European Union and African Union to assist poorer countries.

Hawkish Opportunism

However, nations leading in vaccine production have begun to use vaccines as a marketable product, engaging in vaccine diplomacy to inoculate populations they can extract value from, whether mercantile or political. Russia, in particular, has used Sputnik V’s early development as a means to trump the West scientifically, despite ongoing concerns regarding its efficacy and purportedly rushed clinical trials.

In particular, China’s vaccine deployment has been used to strengthen ties with its global partners, engaging nations directly to advance its interests. Selling vaccines at high cost despite far less efficacy than Western vaccinations, China’s cheap and fast production has led to a great deal of opportunism regarding middle-income nations, leaving lower-income nations in the dust.

Mobilization and Warfare

Vaccines have also secured a place on the battlefield, with large-scale vaccinations during mobilizations in Russia and Azerbaijan. Mass inoculation of military forces, primarily when amassed or during diplomatic crises, have become an implicit threat to neighboring countries. In particular, vaccines have been withheld from citizens in troubled nations like Myanmar, primarily for military use.

The U.S. and E.U.’s vaccine deployment has so far been in good faith, despite concerns regarding E.U. deliveries and COVAX’s general efficiency. However, it is clear that regardless of domestic vaccination rates, the developed world must ensure nations without access to vaccines due to crises such as in Yemen, Somalia, the Congo, and South Sudan.


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