The Brief, powered by FACEBOOK – Vaccine geopolitics

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/YAMIL LAGE]

In any civilisation, one commodity is more precious than the others, and it naturally becomes the bedrock of power. Could be salt, could be gold, could be the US dollar. Now it’s the COVID-19 vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the big geopolitical centres lost no time in joining the vaccine “gold rush”. And they reacted in their own ways. Centralised economies such as Russia, China, even tiny Cuba, mobilised as if it were wartime and produced their national vaccines in a record time.

Liberal economies played the card of public-private partnerships and gave money to multinational companies to speed up the production of the precious commodity.

As a result, the vaccines being distributed on our side of the world are named after big pharma companies, not after any particular country.

Now these products are in competition on the world stage with the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the two Chinese vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm. We could also mention the Cuban Soberana 2 vaccine, which is still in the testing phase.

But the motivation was also different. While the West seems focused on getting enough vaccines for its own populations, Russia and China are using their vaccines to expand their geopolitical influence.

Russian and Chinese vaccines are shipped across the globe like Spanish conquistadors bringing Catholicism to the New World.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen infuriated Russia by saying that Moscow was trying to lure clients in the West while it was unable to provide jabs for its own population.

Even the name, ‘Sputnik’, suggests the Kremlin sees its vaccine as a PR stunt, an opportunity to remind the world of a moment when the Soviet Union enjoyed a rare advantage over the West while launching the first satellite into space.

Apparently, other emblematic Soviet products, such as the Moskvich car, did not make the cut to provide Russia’s vaccine brand name.

In reality, the majority of developing countries will only be able to receive vaccine deliveries from China or India. The latter’s approach, which has not been overshadowed by the kind of vaccine nationalism dominating strategies elsewhere, is a cause for hope.

Known as “the pharmacy of the developing world”, India is producing huge quantities of the AstraZeneca jab, under the name “Covishield”. This is the number one vaccine sent around the world under the Covax program. It brings vaccines to the EU’s closest neighbours, including Serbia and Ukraine, to name just two.

And strange as it may seem, as the EU is unable to get its AstraZeneca vaccines produced in Belgium, because they go elsewhere, it is planning to import the substitute…  from India.

From an Indian perspective, at a time when the EU is unable to issue reassuring messages to its own population and to the rest of the world, the pharmacy of the developing world could just be in a position to come to the rescue.

The COVAX facility aims to distribute 2 billion doses to 92 poorer subscribing countries, but only by the end of 2021. Estimates suggest it could take up to seven years to vaccinate three-quarters of the world’s estimated 7.8 billion people. The EU and India should join forces to drastically speed up the global roll-out.

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The Roundup

Europe’s current economic model “has no future” and does not respond to “major environmental challenges”, Portugal’s prime minister António Costa said on Friday, calling for the adoption of new models such as the circular economy and sustainable bioeconomy.

Hungary’s agriculture ministry has launched a scathing attack on the Greens/EFA political group after the publication of a damning report detailing the misuse of EU farming subsidy money in the country.

Portugal’s agriculture minister Maria do Céu Antunes will by the end of March convene a joint negotiation meeting with all three rapporteurs in the European Parliament to seek a breakthrough in Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) talks.

Banks in the EU should publish a “green asset ratio” as a core measure of their climate-friendly business activities, the EU’s banking watchdog proposed.

In an unusual move, European Council President Charles Michel invited Georgia’s ruling and opposition parties for talks under his mediation over dinner during his visit to Tbilisi.

Ethiopian diplomats have stoked a growing diplomatic feud with the European Union after the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, and his envoy, Finland’s Pekka Haavisto, harshly criticised the government’s handling of the conflict in the northern Tigray province.

Europe’s drug regulator is auditing the manufacturing site of the Serum Institute of India (SII), a source with knowledge of the matter said, a necessary step before AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine made there can be exported to the bloc.

Look out for…

  •  Informal videoconference of EU trade ministers

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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