The announcement from the US President that his country will export an extra two crore doses of Covid-19 vaccines in addition to the six crore doses already committed has two important connotations. First, Biden has decided that the US will not hand over the lead in the worldwide war against Covid-19 to Russia and China.
The second one will be really beneficial to mankind. Biden has announced that the US will expand the global production and distribution of vaccines. In substance, it means not just enhanced production in the US but diversification of production centres in different parts of the globe. The US will also prod the IMF to release $900 billion to member countries for fighting the pandemic.
But why has Biden decided to veer away from his policy of ‘America First’? Is it sheer philanthropy? Or is it an attempt to regain America’s place in world politics, which the US lost during Trump’s presidency?
The second factor is perhaps relevant. He is sure to recall that way back in 1957, one Sputnik, the first-ever spacecraft launched by the former Soviet Union, had threatened America’s military might. Nikita Khrushchev then Premier of the USSR, had thrown up his hands in glee by exclaiming: “Our potential enemies cringe in fright”. Dwight Eisenhower, Khrushchev’s counterpart in the US, was first embarrassed, then tried to put up a brave face by declaring that the satellite did not raise his apprehensions, not an iota. Within a year, however, he admitted that it posed a direct military threat to the US. Sixty-four years later, Biden cannot let another Sputnik — this time Sputnik V — steal a march over America.
In India, Sputnik V, the Russia-made vaccine, made its landfall in Hyderabad first. At a time when India is running short of vaccines, the arrival of Sputnik V will no doubt provide a ray of relief. Not to lag behind, the US has also made it known that Washington has already extended $100 million worth of assistance to India, and it will produce 100 crore doses of vaccines, mainly in India, by the end of 2022.
But all such publicity blitz came out after Russian officials had declared that Sputnik V has already received orders of 1.2 billion doses and that Russia will produce 500 million doses of it in 2022. Production will take place in several countries. Putin is one step ahead of Biden in establishing his country’s presence in the world vaccine market. So does Biden’s philanthropic gesture emanate from anxiety over Russia’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’?
Spheres of Influence
But Biden could have acted in other ways also. It is true that in the initial days of his presidency, he had to tide over the chaotic legacy of Trump and vaccinate as many Americans as he could. Perhaps he is right that India could have acted with more sagacity — stockpiling domestic productions for vaccinating her own people first and then export the doses at a time when the country’s population would have reached herd immunity. However, in America’s case, it was sitting over a large amount of stocks as Biden had made a push for larger domestic production immediately after assuming office. This was exactly the situation when Russia and China filled up the vacuum.
It is a geopolitical race for extending spheres of influence. Only this can explain the information in the world media that the US Department of Health and Human Services had proudly described in its 2020 annual report that it had persuaded Brazil to reject the Russian vaccine. Yes, America has promised to come to Brazil’s aid. But the Bolsonaro government is wiser. It has come to realise that refusing Russian or Chinese vaccines might be suicidal. Therefore, it is now procuring vaccines from Sinopharm, a Chinese state-owned company, and Sinovac, a Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company.
There are reports that Brazil will strike arrangements with these companies for producing vaccines locally. In line with this, Brazil will soon get coronavirus vaccine ingredients from China to produce 25 million doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac shots. A big deal indeed.
Like it or not, a vaccine war is on. In it Russia has played its cards more deftly, although China has put to practice its ‘vaccine nationalism’ in a bit crude manner. Moscow offered accredited diplomats of different countries in Russia Sputnik jabs. Many of them, mostly those from America, Britain and some other western countries, chose not to volunteer. But the Indian ambassador took the jab. This approach has worked.
Belarus was the first country to accept Sputnik. Two days later, Argentina followed. Nicaragua immediately fell in line only to be followed by countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras and Guatemala. But from a strategic point of view, the most important country falling for Sputnik V is Mexico, which made an agreement with Russia to get 24 million doses of Sputnik after being disheartened at the initial stage by the US refusal to supply sufficient amounts of doses.
Biden has been quick to understand the import of a ‘Russian vaccine invasion’ in Mexico, the backyard of the US. Response has also been quick. So American officials lost no time in giving out the information that the US has exported 45 lakh doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to Canada and Mexico. There are indications that in the competitive world vaccine market, the US is now seriously considering export of more vaccines. This has become necessary for the US as Russia and China have already sent nearly 40 crore doses of their own vaccines to countries in need.
But Europe is home to many modern pharmaceutical behemoths. Senior officials of the European Union have lambasted Russia for ‘trying to discredit other vaccines produced by western companies’. Necessity is, however, the final arbitrator. So quite a few European countries have entered into independent arrangements with Russia. Hungary and Slovakia are using Sputnik V and Russian authorities have hinted at diversified production in cooperation with Italy, France, Spain and Germany.
The need of the hour is, however, a united battle against Covid-19 and not any game of one-upmanship.
(The author is a senior journalist and commentator specialising in politics and international affairs.)