Analysis: China and Russia want to vaccinate the developing world before the West. It’s brought them closer than ever

Bobo Lo, an expert on China-Russia relations and former deputy head of mission at Australia’s embassy in Moscow, said both Moscow and Beijing saw an opportunity for geopolitical gains in the pandemic, winning favor and influence for their autocratic systems.

“It’s useful to them to point out that the West is being selfish in limiting the distribution of vaccine to developing countries,” he said. “This is a really convenient narrative for both Beijing and Moscow.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a welcoming ceremony on November 14, 2019 in Brasilia, Brazil.

There is also a darker side to Moscow and Beijing’s vaccine cooperation. In recent months, Russian disinformation efforts have tried to undermine confidence in US and UK vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca, according to Judyth Twigg, professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

China has done the same, with state-run media hyping up reports of deaths from US and European-made vaccines.

Former diplomat Lo said both Russia and China had an interest in discrediting the US-led world order, particularly Beijing, which is keen for a chance to burnish its own reputation and promote itself as the leader of the global south.

“(China is saying), ‘We understand you, we’re not an imperial power like the Western powers … we’re just here to help,'” he said.

In demand

Russia was the first country to announce it had produced a viable Covid-19 vaccine in August 2020, named Sputnik V after the country’s history making satellite launch in 1957.
Initial doubts over its effectiveness were tempered by a study published in the Lancet in February, which found in preliminary results that the vaccine had 91.6% effectiveness.
Now, hundreds of millions of doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, along with China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm shots, are making their way around the world, despite only Sinopharm being accepted into the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative. Neither Sputnik nor Sinovac has been approved by the WHO.

In Latin America, traditionally an area of US influence, countries such as Argentina and Chile have been buying up large numbers of Russian and Chinese shots to fill the gaps in their vaccine rollouts.

According to Duke University’s records of vaccine procurements, Argentina has placed orders for 30 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine and 4 million doses of Sinopharm. To date, Argentina has not been able to strike a deal for the US Pfizer vaccine, although it has ordered 23 million doses of AstraZeneca’s shot.
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Indonesia, a longtime US ally in southeast Asia, turned to China to order more shipments of Sinovac after its AstraZeneca order was delayed by a year due to the outbreak in India, according state-run Antara News Agency. To date, Indonesia has bought more Sinovac vaccines than any other country, at least 125 million doses, according to Duke University.
The second largest buyer of Sinovac is Turkey, a “critical regional partner” for the US, according to the State Department. Turkey purchased 100 million doses of the Chinese-made shot, and started administering the first doses in January — it took four more months for US-made Pfizer shots to arrive. Ankara even sent hundreds of thousands of excess Sinovac doses of the drug to Libya.
Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund said in February there had been requests for more than 2.5 billion doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. At the same time, Sinopharm said it had received orders for 500 million doses, according to the state-run tabloid Global Times. Meanwhile, Sinovac was being asked to deliver 450 million doses, and was planning to transfer the technology to manufacture the drug to 10 countries to assist in a rapid rollout, Reuters reported.
Most of Russia and China’s vaccine deliveries have been sold rather than donated, but an analysis by Think Global Health found that 63 out of the 65 countries Beijing had donated vaccines to so far were part of Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
China isn’t just producing its own vaccines — it is also helping to produce Russia’s. By April 19, three privately-owned Chinese companies had struck major deals with Russia’s RDIF to produce 260 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine — 60 million by Shenzhen Yuanxing Gene-tech Co, 100 million by TopRidge Pharma and 100 million by Hualan Biological Bacterin Inc, according to the Global Times.
The deal is partially the result of inadequate manufacturing capacity in Russia. In January, the RDIF warned of delays of up to three weeks for countries waiting for their doses.

China’s ability to manufacture vaccines for other countries, including Russia, is partially due to having the Covid-19 outbreak almost completely controlled within its borders and rapid upgrades to the country’s manufacturing capacity.

In March, Sinopharm announced plans to create up to 3 billion doses per year, making it the biggest coronavirus vaccine producer in the world, according to state-run media. Sinovac said it was aiming to ramp up its annual capacity to 2 billion.

Meanwhile, Russia has been forced to cut deals with international suppliers to reach its delivery goals for Sputnik — in April, the RDIF announced 20 manufacturers in 10 countries would be making the shots.

An unlikely partnership

China and Russia have had a rocky relationship over the past century, despite both being large Asian nations with a long history of Communist rule. There have been border clashes, political hostages and a famously long-running chilliness between Russian leader Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong.
But in recent years, under Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, the two countries have developed a tight bond built on mutual geopolitical interests. In 2019, amid growing trade tensions between Beijing and Washington, Xi described Putin as his “best and bosom friend,” while Putin said relations were at an “unprecedented level.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened those bonds further, with Russian ambassador to China Andrey Denisov saying in April 2020 that the two countries would fight the common enemy “hand-in-hand.” “As we did in World War II,” he said.
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In an opinion piece in China Daily on April 7, China’s ambassador to Moscow Zhang Hanhui said: “The more the world changes, the more chaotic it is and the more significant the great friendship between China and Russia is.”
The cooperation has caused rising concern for some Western leaders. Speaking on March 25, French President Emmanuel Macron warned Russia and China could use their vaccines to exert influence over the developing world, in “a world war of a new type.”

Thomas Bollyky, director of the Global Health Program at the Council for Foreign Relations, said many developing nations were “desperate” for vaccines.

But Bollyky said while there might be some concern from the US government over any political influence China and Russia might be gaining from their rollouts, at the end of the day “the world needs more vaccines.”

“My only concern with the China vaccine and Russia’s vaccine is they still haven’t released the underlying clinical trial data too assess their safety and effectiveness,” he said.

Former diplomat Lo said while it was hard to know if the closeness would remain in the long term, for now both Xi and Putin were being brought together by the growing Western opposition to their governments. Under President Joe Biden, the US has increasingly focused on building coalitions of friendly nations to put pressure on Beijing and Moscow.

“For the time being, the US is so evidently, for both Moscow and Beijing, the clear and present danger,” he said.

Vaccine diplomacy

China and Russia have denied they are engaged in vaccine diplomacy. Speaking at a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on March 23, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said both countries were engaged in “humanitarian work.”

“Unlike some major countries that are hoarding the vaccines for their own interests, we want to see more people immunized. Our hope is for the world to beat the pandemic as soon as possible,” Wang said.

“For China and Russia, our choice is not to benefit only ourselves, but rather to help the whole world.”

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Twigg said China and Russia knew they had a very limited window in which to offer their vaccines to the developing world before Western nations caught up.

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Questions have already been raised by some world leaders over Russia’s motivations behind its rapid rollout of the Sputnik vaccine to developing countries.

“We still wonder why Russia is offering, theoretically, millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating its own people,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference in February. “This a question that should be answered.”
To date, only 5.9% of Russia’s population has been fully vaccinated. China said it had administered over 300 million doses of the vaccine as of May 7, but it isn’t clear how many of those are first or second shots.

Even if Russia and China can work quickly to vaccinate the developing world, some experts doubt their efforts will have the desired long-term political payoff.

Twigg said the global rollout is still in its infancy and any number of developments, including Biden’s to waive vaccine patent laws, could change the current vaccine landscape. By the end of the pandemic, she said most nations are likely to have inoculated their populations with a variety of vaccines from a number of countries.

“A year or two, or three, from now, the places where Russia or China got there first, I don’t think anyone’s going to remember,” she said.


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