VACCINE DIPLOMACY – SELYCIA CURWEN

Image: Joshua Hoehne (Unsplash)

With the development of numerous COVID-19 vaccines, comes numerous behind-the-scenes negotiations. These include bilateral or multilateral agreements and debates on patent waiving. These vaccines are costly and as the world order stands, many developing countries cannot afford them. In addition to this, it could be argued that negotiations have been largely nationalist in nature to the detriment of others. Vaccines have now become something of a diplomatic currency in order to exercise soft power. This article will briefly look at the issue of patent waiving and the strategic diplomatic decisions being made by India and China. Both of which have the goal to provide affordable vaccines in light of the nationalistic nature of their Western counterparts’ vaccine decisions. 

Patent wavering 

A patent waiver entails a suspension of the rights relating to a patent. In the case of vaccines, this means that private or public entities may use the findings, research done, and other intellectual property in order to develop and sell their own copies at lower costs. This would increase global supply and speed up the vaccination process before the virus has a chance to continue mutating. South Africa (SA) and India were the forerunners in advocating for a patent waiver and are now supported by over 100 countries. Members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) however, are opposing this notion stating it would impede upon innovation as it removes the incentive to make investments in research and development. It is worth noting that the opposing countries are responsible for over 60% of the vaccines globally administered and as of 18 February 2021, 130 countries had yet to receive a single dose of a vaccine. Refusing temporary patent waiving could potentially be detrimental as it has been found that the virus is mutating, thus, adaptations of the vaccines will need to be made swiftly. 

Sinovac, Sinopharm, and Indian-made AstraZeneca

China was one of the first countries to develop vaccines. Sinopharm has had more promising efficacy results than its counterpart Sinovac. What sets these vaccines apart from the well-known Pfizer vaccine is its storage method. Sinovac and Sinopharm are said to be stable at refrigerator temperatures whereas the Pfizer vaccine can only be stored at freezing temperatures. Although the vaccine boasts 95% efficacy, this storage method makes it difficult still for developing countries as the transportation of the vaccine poses challenges. The Chinese vaccines are primarily in use, in the Gulf states such as Bahrain and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This comes as no surprise since China is one of the largest oil consumers in the world. It is concerning however, that there are discrepancies in the Gulf countries’ reports of the efficacy of the vaccines. For example, Turkey reported a 91% efficacy while Brazil reported 50%. This raises skepticism among countries as there is a lack of transparency from China in the same way as they have released limited information with regards to the first outbreak of the virus. 

India has long been a pharmaceutical giant having already produced roughly 60% of the globe’s vaccines pre-COVID-19. After striking a deal with AstraZeneca, the Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccine could help them hold onto that title. India has gifted roughly 6 million doses and sold approximately 18 million doses. The competitive nature of the vaccine environment can be seen where India and China have conflicting strategic interests in the Seychelles who have received 50 000 doses of both the Indian-made AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccines, totalling 100 000 doses for a population of 98 000 people. In terms of delivery, New Delhi has swiftly sent 1.7 million doses of the vaccine to Myanmar where China promised to send 300 000 doses and has yet to deliver them. China is thus slowly losing its grip on soft power as a result of their lack of reliability. 

Conclusion

In a volatile and uncertain environment like a pandemic, state actors and corporations alike need to ensure the safety of their citizens. However, as explained above, there is an element of greed and nationalism at play. Temporary patent waiving will speed up vaccine distribution and accessibility. Those most vocal against this issue see it as a potential monetary and innovation threat. We live in a globalised, capitalist world where anything can and will affect everyone in a rippled manner. In a pandemic, even more so. States are therefore reluctant to enter into any agreements unless there is something to gain. This was shown by China and India wanting to maintain trade relations and global pharamaceutical influence respectively. It is acknowledged and welcomed that emerging Global South powers are essentially covering the gaps left by the Global North. Naturally, the Global North powers may see it as a potential threat to the world order if they succeed.

Selycia Curwen is a BAdminHons Public Administration and Management student at the University of Pretoria. Her interests are widespread and therefore, along with the knowledge she attained from her degrees, she would like to actively participate in the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals at both the national and international level.

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