America Needs to Ramp Up Its Vaccine Diplomacy

A health worker prepares a dose of the Sinopharm’s coronavirus vaccine in Lima, Peru, February 9, 2021. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)
Russia and China already are working to exert political influence with their vaccine supply.

America emerged from the pandemic earlier this year in large part because we had access to safe and effective vaccines. Unfortunately, other countries, particularly in Africa, have struggled to procure reliable doses, and COVID-19 cases remain high as a result. America should ramp up efforts to donate vaccines and help distribute life-saving treatment to these nations. It’s not only the ethical thing to do; it would also help America’s global prestige.

The pandemic in Africa is now worse than it’s ever been. A quarter-million cases were reported on the continent last week, and the rate of infections is not slowing. One of the drivers of this surge is Africa’s poor record on inoculations. Only 1 percent of Africans have been vaccinated, a number that is staggeringly low compared with more developed countries. For context, a live vaccine counter operated by “Our World in Data” shows that nearly 50 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.

Low vaccination rates make it challenging to prevent runaway infections. For example, last April, a second wave of COVID-19 cases in India battered the population there. At the time, India halted exports of vaccines to African countries to focus on its own outbreak. Yet despite the COVID-19 bouts, high costs, and vaccine-rollout difficulties, India still boasts vaccination numbers between five and 20 times the African average.

This hasn’t been overlooked by Russia and China, which are using this disparity to their advantage. Russia has released its Sputnik V and has been exporting it to African nations, even though less than one-quarter of its own population is vaccinated. Russia plans to deliver hundreds of millions of vaccines to India over time.

China has been even more aggressively pursuing “vaccine diplomacy.” They have gone beyond just sending vaccines to African nations. Xi Jinping has sent vaccines and funding to Latin American and South Asian countries as well. It is, of course, good that other countries are helping to boost vaccination rates abroad. However, no one seriously believes that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are acting out of newfound altruism. Both Russia and China aim to exert political influence as part of their vaccine strategy.

Their scheme is not working as well as Putin and Xi would like. Sputnik V has been a disappointment. Behind schedule and costly, the vaccine rollout has contributed to Russia’s reputation of “overpromising and underdelivering.” The vaccines from China, on the other hand, are in plentiful supply but have a low efficacy rate. China’s own sources have had to revise herd-immunity projections because their vaccines fail to adequately prevent transmission. The New York Times reported,

The Chinese companies have not released much clinical data to show how their vaccines work at preventing transmission. On Monday, Shao Yiming, an epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said China needed to fully vaccinate 80 to 85 percent of its population to achieve herd immunity, revising a previous official estimate of 70 percent.

The failures of Russia and China to stem outbreaks around the globe leave room for the United States to assert itself on the world stage. However, we can only do so if we are willing to take the necessary steps. To his credit, Biden announced earlier this year that the U.S. would donate 500 million Pfizer vaccines. However, Reuters reports that only 200 million of those vaccines are projected to enter arms this year.

Part of the problem is we haven’t seen decisive action from the Biden administration on this issue. The administration took months to deliberate over the who, what, where, when, and how of sending vaccines overseas. That timeline won’t be good enough for African nations that need help now. Without foreign aid, there is no solution in sight. The New York Times reported that

Rich nations have bought up most doses long into the future, often far more than they could conceivably need. Hundreds of millions of shots from a global vaccine-sharing effort have failed to materialize.

Supplies to African countries are unlikely to increase much in the next few months, rendering the most effective tool against Covid, vaccines, of little use in the current wave. Instead, many countries are resorting to lockdowns and curfews.

The American industrial machinery is the best in the world, and we can do more to help end the pandemic abroad. Americans should support vaccine diplomacy on ethical grounds because it’s a way to help needy people at a relatively low cost. Pragmatically, though, engaging in this would also help prevent new future variants from arising, and it would blunt the geopolitical aims of our adversaries. This is a good use of foreign-aid money, and Americans should be eager to give it.


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