Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 220, 28 January 2021

COVID-19: The Vaccine Wars
Sourina Bej

In the news
On 27 January, the Johns Hopkins University, one of the global trackers of coronavirus cases, reported that the world now has 100 million cases. Along with it, the countries in the Global South, especially China and India, are competing and promising to gift the COVID-19 vaccines in their extended neighbourhood and alliances.

On 24 January, the Indian newspaper Hindu Businessline reported that "Bangladesh refused to share the cost of the trials as the Chinese firm maintained that this is the condition that every country has to abide by in order to purchase the coronavirus vaccine."

On 26 January, in response, the Chinese daily Global Times stated that, "Bangladesh had agreed to Sinovac clinical trials in July. At that time, it did not need to share the cost. But the clinical trials were delayed until October due to the Indian government allegedly meddling in the two sides' cooperation during the period." From 21 to 22 January, India has gifted COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar as part of its goodwill diplomacy. The 1.5 million doses to Myanmar were the first to any Southeast Asian country. It is followed by two million doses of vaccine to Bangladesh. Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Seychelles and Brazil are the other countries to receive the doses.

On 16 January, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi completed his four-nation visits to Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines to initiate Sinovac doses in these countries. Yi promised Myanmar 3,00,000 doses of a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine. On 8 January, Indonesia approved Sinovac, deeming it permissible under Islam and on 11 January, Philippines 25 million doses from China.

Issues at large
First, competition and vaccine diplomacy. Since October 2020, Sinovac had kicked off clinical trials in several countries, such as Brazil, Turkey and Bangladesh. Among the biggest takers of the Chinese vaccine in Southeast Asia, is Malaysia. The country has been in talks to secure 23.9 million doses from Sinovac and CanSino Biologics. Similarly, the race to vaccine procurement has been led by India in its neighbourhood. From Seychelles to Brazil, the Serum Institute of India has been the nodal group to promise Covid-19 vaccine to the developing countries. Both India and China have raced to reach its neighbours that have tested their sphere of influence. Both India and China have made promises and granted vaccines as a goodwill gesture amid the humanitarian crisis.   

Second, the question of efficiency and apprehension against Chinese vaccine. Chinese vaccines do not have approval from the WHO and have been rushed out for emergency use, but success rates have fallen short of the mark. Reports from outside of China have recorded just 50-50 effectiveness, compared with Chinese claims of around 75 per cent. The WHO team has been visiting Wuhan to investigate the origin of the vaccine. In the sidelines, Bangladesh, Nepal and Brazil have preferred to commit to the Indian vaccines to evade another Chinese dependency.  

In perspective
The vaccine warriors and the race to reach the last man standing by India and China have opened up new options for the developing countries. Health diplomacy will be pivotal for creating new technological supply chains and boosting each of the countries' technological prowess. While vaccine research has been led by the Global North, Global South still faces accessibility and punctuality issues. The dependency on the supply chains from the west is slowly being replaced, as countries like India and China look inward and outward to push for the vaccine supply.

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