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Russia and China's Vaccine Diplomacy: Not Quite the Geopolitical Slam Dunk

14 Sep 2021
By Ian Hill
The Sinopharm vaccine. Source: Government of Santa Fe Province

For Russia and China, the pandemic provided an opportunity to showcase their scientific prowess and build geopolitical influence in developing countries. Vaccine sales abroad also promised a financial bonanza for Chinese and Russian pharmaceutical companies.

A year ago, Russia announced the launch of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine. Its name, Sputnik V, consciously evoked Russia’s scientific triumph in launching the first artificial satellite into space in 1957. China followed soon after with COVID-19 vaccines produced by Sinopharm and Sinovac.

Russia and China seized the opportunity to burnish their reputation as reliable partners committed to health as a global public good. They hoped to take advantage of the slow and muddled start to vaccine rollouts in the EU and US, coupled with perceived hoarding of vaccines by governments for their own populations.

Low-middle income states, desperate for vaccines, but seemingly shut out of access to Western vaccines, were quick to sign up for Chinese and Russian vaccines, often fast-tracking regulatory approval processes. One year on, how has Russia and China’s vaccine diplomacy fared?

Early signs seemed promising for Russia. The rapid development of Sputnik V by state-run Gamaleya Laboratory was an undoubted achievement, even if its premature rollout before completion of final trials smacked of political expediency.  And Sputnik V received an early boost with its high efficacy endorsed in The Lancet.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), the sovereign wealth fund assigned the task of selling Sputnik V internationally, boasted in March of plans to supply up to 700 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021, through a mix of Russian-produced vaccine and licensed production in key partner countries.

Orders were secured from key neighbouring governments such as Turkey and Iran, as well as important partners further afield, such as India, Egypt, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa – with agreements also signed for local production with most of these countries.

Sputnik V has been authorised for use in nearly 70 countries.  For developing states, the relative ease of storage and distribution of Sputnik V is an advantage over Western mRNA vaccines.  By the end of August, total orders for Sputnik V were estimated at around 610 million doses.

So far, so good. It turns out, though, Russia made the mistake of over-promising but under-delivering. Authoritative data is somewhat elusive, but it’s clear that delivery targets were over-ambitious and that Russia has fallen well short of meeting its supply commitments. Argentina is still waiting for 5.5 million first doses and 13.1 million second doses. Iran ordered 60 million doses but received only two million. Mexico ordered 24 million doses but received only 4.1 million. Dissatisfied customers have been left scrambling for alternatives.

What’s gone wrong? Firstly, Russia proved unable to scale up quickly large-scale commercial production of the Sputnik V vaccine. This is perhaps not surprising, given Russia’s perennial difficulty in commercialising its scientific innovations. And mass producing the second Sputnik V dose, effectively a different vaccine, is not easy. Moreover, setting up production facilities abroad has taken longer than expected, amid suggestions Russia initially overestimated the technological capabilities of some partner countries to manufacture the Sputnik V vaccine.

Next, despite The Lancet’s endorsement, doubts have persisted about Sputnik V’s efficacy. The World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have yet to grant regulatory approval to Sputnik V, citing a lack of supporting research and testing data. South Africa’s regulatory agency has also not yet approved Sputnik V for use, and Brazil’s regulator authorised it only for limited use.

A final hurdle has been the relatively high cost of Sputnik V. RDIF charges a fixed price of US$9.75 per dose, significantly more than AstraZeneca ($3.00) and even Pfizer ($6.75).  This has been compounded by alleged profiteering scandals by third-party agents on-selling to countries such as Kenya.

China’s vaccine diplomacy, meanwhile, has fared much better – although it has not been an unalloyed triumph either. Unlike Russia, China scaled up commercial production successfully and has made good progress in meeting international delivery commitments for its two main COVID-19 vaccines – Sinopharm and Sinovac.  No surprise there, given China’s proven manufacturing and supply chain management experience.

In contrast to Russia, shrewdly focused donations have figured prominently in China’s vaccine diplomacy. Beijing has targeted multilateral recipients, such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UN peacekeepers, and the International Olympic Committee ahead of the Tokyo games.  More recently, China has concluded substantial commercial supply commitments to the multilateral COVAX facility (again, unlike Russia).

By early September, China had sold around 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to over 100 countries, of which 755 million doses have been delivered. Asia and Latin America figure prominently among customers for Chinese vaccines. Indonesia and Brazil are the biggest buyers, purchasing 189 million and 95 million doses, respectively. Substantial quantities have also been delivered to Pakistan, Turkey, Philippines, Cambodia, Iran, Thailand, Morocco, and Mexico.

China’s vaccine effort has, however, been clouded by question marks raised increasingly over the efficacy of both Sinovac and Sinopharm. While the WHO has authorised both vaccines, the agency has assessed Sinovac’s efficacy at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 at only 51 percent, and that of Sinopharm at 79 percent. With limited 60-plus age study participants, even this data might be optimistic. Concern over limited efficacy has led some recipients, like Thailand and Indonesia, to recommend a mixed dose of Chinese and Western vaccines to enhance immunity effectiveness. Malaysia plans to stop administering Sinovac completely.

China has also drawn criticism for attaching strings to its vaccine deliveries. It pressed Honduras and Paraguay, for example, to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. And it leaned on Ukraine to soft-pedal criticism of China’s treatment of the minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. China’s vaccine distribution has also inflamed existing geopolitical tensions, as the recent spat between Beijing and Canberra over pandemic assistance to Pacific Island countries shows.

How successful, then, have Russia and China’s respective vaccine diplomacy efforts been? Essentially – a mixed report card, but China has certainly fared better than Russia so far. With its successful rapid scaling up to commercial production of its vaccines and effective global marketing effort, China has made the most of its early mover advantage. And the prominence of key influential and populous states in South and South East Asia, notably Indonesia, Thailand, and Pakistan, and in Latin America, particularly Brazil and Mexico, among its leading customers shows the shrewd geopolitical framing of China’s vaccine distribution efforts.

Russia’s vaccine deliveries globally have, by comparison, failed pretty dismally to live up to the accompanying hype. The problems underlying Russia’s slow and limited rate of vaccine delivery and still-delayed approval by WHO and EMA are symptomatic of wider weaknesses in Russia’s economy – notably difficulties in scaling up at speed scientific innovations for commercial production and a pervasive wariness of data transparency. Moscow, then, has squandered its first mover advantage. Far from Sputnik V enhancing its influence globally, Russia’s flawed vaccine delivery performance has tarnished its reputation.

From a geopolitical standpoint, it’s striking that commitments by BRICS leaders at their November 2020 summit to cooperate on COVID-19 vaccines appear to have come largely to naught. Yet, despite Russia’s supply shortfalls and questions about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines, both countries will remain a critical part of the global pandemic response effort, given the huge, unsatisfied demand for vaccines in developing countries.

Ian Hill was a senior career diplomat in the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  In the course of his 41 year career, Ian was posted three times to Moscow, serving twice as Ambassador (2009-12 and 2016 -20).  He also served as New Zealand’s Deputy Ambassador in Washington DC for five years (2004 – 2009), and as High Commissioner to Tonga (1995-98).  Earlier postings included London and Suva.  Among a range of senior roles in the Ministry in Wellington, Ian was Divisional Manager responsible for Europe in 2012 – 2016, and earlier served as Prime Minister’s Foreign Affairs Adviser for three years (1993-1995).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.