Not long ago, foreign policy experts fretted over decisions made by the US and UK to use their pre-purchased stocks of COVID-19, rather than distribute them “equitably” with poorer nations first. Not only did this amount to an offensive display of privilege and wealth, critics claimed, it left the field open for America’s geopolitical foes. Russia and China planned to flood poorer nations with their own vaccines, especially China, as a way to acquire leverage and influence.
Neither the Trump or Biden administrations paid much attention to these concerns, calculating that the domestic blowback from shipping out vaccines would far overwhelm any momentary benefits from delaying herd immunity in the US. It turns out that China’s “vaccine diplomacy” wasn’t much of a threat anyway, the Washington Post reports, because no one trusts China — and Beijing won’t share their trial data either:
Last month, a shipment of Sinovac coronavirus vaccines arrived without fanfare in Singapore from China.
Today, the vaccines sit unused in a storage facility. The wealthy city-state is moving ahead with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for its coronavirus immunization program, with officials saying Sinovac needs to provide more data before they will consider rolling out its doses.
The case highlights the limitations of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. China’s lack of transparency in its clinical trials has hurt public confidence, even as national leaders from Indonesia to Sierra Leone have gotten the shots to rally their populations to do the same.
China’s coronavirus vaccine makers Sinovac and Sinopharm were among the earliest in the world to begin clinical trials last year. It remains unclear why they still have not published the data from the studies, even after dozens of governments have greenlighted their vaccines for emergency use.
Come on, man. Is it really that unclear why China hasn’t released its clinical-trial data? The better question is why those dozens of governments green-lit the use of those vaccines without seeing that data and reviewing it for themselves. How did they justify that when they had no other basis than Beijing’s “trust us” on the efficacy of those vaccines?
We actually have some real-world data on efficacy for Sinovac and Sinopharm, and … it’s not good:
A “very small number” of people in the United Arab Emirates are being invited to receive a third shot of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine after antibody tests indicated they did not have a sufficient immune response following two doses of the Chinese-made vaccine, its distributor confirmed Sunday.
There have also been reports out of China of people being initially unresponsive to the vaccine and requiring additional doses.
The UAE data is especially interesting, as they led the world on per-capita inoculations, along with Israel. They were an early adopter of the Chinese vaccines, convinced to use them based on China’s self-proclaimed 79% effectiveness rate. Israel relied on Pfizer and Moderna instead, and the difference in reported cases looks interesting indeed. Here’s the chart from the last six months for the UAE from Bing’s aggregation of CDC and WHO data:
And here’s the same chart from Israel:
The two countries are relatively similar in size, which makes this comparison even more apt. The number of cases is still declining in UAE, but at a much slower rate. Israel has delivered more doses than UAE has — 110 per 100 people, as opposed to 77 per 100, but that’s still good enough to put UAE at third in that metric in the world. By comparison, the US is at 38 per 100, and yet this is our overall case arc as of today (the red line is the 7-day average):
Whatever the UAE is doing, it’s clearly been much less effective at driving down new confirmed cases of COVID-19. Their transmission rates are only drifting downward despite an impressive vaccination program, which calls into question the efficacy of those vaccines given to UAE — and likely explains the “third dose” strategy now in place.
It also explains why Singapore and other countries are highly skeptical about China’s vaccines, especially when they have access to vaccines with full data sets. “Singapore has options,” an analyst told the Post about that nation’s decision not to use its vaccine doses from China, “unlike some of the countries who have received Sinovac.” It also doesn’t help China’s “vaccine diplomacy” that Xi Jinping has yet to take any of China’s self-produced vaccines, which one might expect to see if the dictator planned to use these vaccines for diplomatic leverage.
As for Russia, the government has announced that Vladimir Putin will finally roll up his sleeve to get a Russian vaccine. However, Moscow won’t say which one it is, and Putin won’t get his inoculation publicly:
The Kremlin said it would not reveal the name of the vaccine that Putin will receive, only that it would be one of three Russian-made shots.
“We are deliberately not saying which shot the president will get, noting that all three Russian vaccines are absolutely reliable and effective,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, Reuters reported Tuesday.
There are three Russian vaccines — Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona and CoviVac — with the latter two only recently gaining emergency approval.
The Russian president is likely to get the vaccine Tuesday evening, Peskov added. It’s unclear whether he will be filmed receiving the shot as Peskov noted that Putin did not like the idea of being vaccinated on camera.
Let’s call this Putin’s shot in the dark, but at least he’s actually getting inoculated … we think. Xi hasn’t even suggested that he’d take one of China’s vaccines. As for vaccine diplomacy, Putin has waved the white flag:
The vaccination comes as the spotlight falls on the country’s vaccine strategy. On Monday, Putin lauded multi-million dollar international sales of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid vaccine but the country’s own rollout appears sluggish, and contrasts sharply with the high numbers of vaccines destined for the international market.
There have been reports that Russia’s own production capacity is low and Putin appeared to nod to this on Monday. He said that Russia needed to ramp up vaccine production for domestic use and that supplying domestic needs was a priority, according to Reuters.
The threat of vaccine diplomacy to the global standing of the US appears to have been greatly exaggerated, in other words.