Vaccine diplomacy: (new) global map of influence

During a pandemic, vaccines become the most valuable commodity, allowing the countries and entities that develop and produce them to gain significant political influence at the regional or global level. When looking at the “spheres of expansions” of the types of vaccines, it is notable that although most of the biggest pharmaceutical companies are based in either the United States or Europe, Western companies seem to have been caught off guard by some of their competitors, especially those from China and Russia. These two Eastern players have been able to quickly develop and disseminate their vaccines across different continents, including Europe and America.

Apart from the relatively high costs of Western vaccines, the slow pace of production so far implies more limited availability of vaccines for developing countries, thus allowing other players to engage in vaccine diplomacy and strengthen their relations with these countries. Yet, costs and speed of delivery are clearly not the only criteria, as the distribution and use of different vaccines across the world are reflective of broader geopolitical trends and divisions. Our analysis reveals that different vaccine strategies can be best understood when looking at the existing diplomatic relations between different countries. Based on fresh data that will be periodically updated, we provide a set of visual tools providing detailed insights on the global vaccine situation, including:

1. Most used vaccine by country

2. Diffusion of US vaccines globally

3. Diffusion of UK vaccines globally

4. Diffusion of Chinese vaccines globally

5. Diffusion of Russian vaccines globally

6. Member States’ alignment with EU vaccine strategy

German-American Pfizer/BioNTech is currently the most used vaccine globally, which could also be (at least in part) attributed to the fact that this vaccine can count on the support of the US and German diplomatic machinery. Unsurprisingly, Pfizer/BioNTech is the most used vaccine in the European Union, the US, Canada and several Central and South American countries. However, it is facing staunch competition from the Chinese and Russian vaccines in developing countries in Africa, Asia, but even in the US and EU courtyards. It is also worth mentioning the strong position of the British, who aimed to provide their former colonies with the mainly British vaccine (Oxford/AstraZeneca). In this case, vaccine diplomacy could be used to support the “Global Britain” plan to strengthen the UK relations with its former territories – a tool that comes in rather handy after Brexit.

 


US and UK vaccines currently the most used

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, developed by the German laboratory BioNTech but manufactured and sold by the American pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer, currently has the widest outreach. Being used by over 60 countries, this jab is being inoculated to citizens from all continents. By now, it has been the most used vaccine in all EU member states, as well as in the US, Canada and some of the US allies in Central and South America, such as Colombia and Panama.


Last updated: 9 March 2021


The popularity of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be attributed to the good relations of the US or Germany with all the countries mentioned above, while also being the first approved vaccine by the EU and the United States. Yet, while Pfizer/BioNTech was the first vaccine to be approved in several countries, it was not the first one to be developed. As shown by the above map, many other countries have since distributed Russian and Chinese vaccines amongst others. This also goes to show the political nature of vaccine distribution, which is reflective of a wider ‘vaccine diplomacy’, as vaccine distribution seems to be based more on geopolitical relations than which vaccine is developed first.


Last updated: 9 March 2021


The vaccine manufactured by UK/Swedish AstraZeneca is the second most widely used globally, as it is operational in over 50 countries. Oxford/AstraZeneca is being used in European countries as well as in many Southeast Asian countries. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the colonial past of certain countries can still be seen in the distribution of vaccines, with former British colonies such as India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, as well as Nigeria and Kenya in Africa, receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, also demonstrating the close relations that the UK still has with these countries. Following its recent divorce with the EU, it is not surprising to see the UK looking to strengthen relations with third countries, including with former colonies.


Last updated: 9 March 2021



Distribution of Chinese and Russian vaccines worldwide

 

Although Russian and Chinese vaccines are not as widespread across the world as US and UK vaccines, they are gradually expanding their outreach, including in the EU’s backyard. 

Vaccine strategy has indeed been a reflection of inequality among countries, the fact that vaccination still has not started in most African countries proves it. Developing countries have notably been pushed to the back of the line for getting vaccines developed in Western countries, which left room for China and Russia to improve relations with some countries or gain new allies. As shown in the following map, China notably distributed vaccines in many developing countries, including Senegal, Zimbabwe and Pakistan among others. However, it is important to note that many developing countries will rely on the WHO-backed Covax mechanism, which has so far approved Pfizer’s and AstraZeneca’s jabs.

At a time when the US is trying to push back vis-à-vis China’s increased influence in the global scene, it is particularly insightful to look at the vaccine situation in Latin America, where most of the countries authorised the use of vaccines from China. The US has been critical of the close economic ties between China and Latin American countries, especially in the case of giants such as Brazil, and increased its efforts to reduce Chinese influence in the American continent. Yet, the high level of interest in Chinese vaccine supplies by Latin American countries confirms that Beijing is still seen as a reliable partner by many in the region.


Last updated: 9 March 2021


Similarly, Russia has delivered its Sputnik V vaccine to countries across the globe, including Venezuela or Algeria, but also Iran.  Russia’s historical past also shapes the way the Russian vaccine has been distributed: some former USSR countries are using the Sputnik V vaccine, such as Kazakhstan and Belarus. At the same time, the Russian jab is operational in countries that were part of Yugoslavia, like Serbia and Montenegro, which are also part of the EU’s immediate neighborhood (countries that negotiate to join the EU). 


Last updated: 9 March 2021


Moreover, the EU’s relatively slow vaccination process also led to increased opportunities for China and Russia: as the EU has struggled to deliver vaccines to its Member States on time, also due to issues with the companies distributing the vaccines but also internal conflicts that undermined the procurement process, an increasing number of Member States are considering closing deals with Russia or China. While Hungary is the first European country to operationalise both the Chinese and Russian vaccines, followed by Slovakia’s preference for the Russian jabs, other countries could follow, as the section below reveals.


EU alignment with the European Commission’s preferences

Maintaining a common EU approach to vaccination has always been seen as a challenge due to the diverging signals sent by the Member States regarding the Union’s position on foreign policy, and in particular when it comes to relations with the US, Chinese and Russian vaccines. However, the slow delivery of vaccines further exacerbated the existing disagreements, affecting both the fragile joint procurement strategy, but even the authorisation process by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). This latter development is particularly pivotal, as the decision of Hungary and Slovakia to move ahead of the authorisation process by the EU agency not only weakens EMA’s position as a regulatory gatekeeper but also generates further headaches for the future steps of the EU COVID-19 approach. For instance, such divergences have implications on the upcoming strategy on the EU “vaccination passports”, as there are disagreements on whether these “passports” should also include vaccines that have not been authorised by EMA. 

As shown by the map below, the number of Member States that want to go their own way on authorising vaccines is increasing, as the governments of Czechia and, to a lesser extent, Croatia are considering such moves.


Last updated: 9 March 2021


 

The level of divergence of CEE countries from the EU strategy is also in line with the broader trend of increasing tension between some of the enlargement Member States, especially the Visegrad ones, and the traditional EU members from Western Europe. As highlighted in our recent piece on the consequences of Fidesz’s departure from the EPP, the tension between different EU regions could pave the way for increased influence of other players, as visible in the case of the vaccination strategies. However, it is also important to note that in this case Poland is seen as slightly more aligned with the EU vaccine strategy compared to the other Visegrad members, which is due to the fact that the country has traditionally been closer to the US on foreign affairs and therefore less eager to accept vaccines from the main US competitors.

Finally, it is important to note that this debate is currently getting less traction in the other Member States, although there are political forces advocating for similar moves. Italian Lega, which recently got back in government, hinted at its support for authorising Sputnik V regardless of EMA opinions. The recent announcement of future production of the Russian vaccine in Northern Italy, the stronghold of Salvini’s Lega, will add further wind into the sails of the Italian supporters of Sputnik V. Political forces from other countries, such as Germany and Austria, have also been slowly warming up with regards to the possibility of using vaccines from Russia and China despite the initial criticism. However, Western governments are, perhaps even instrumentally, waiting for EMA decision before making any moves. 

Contact us at [email protected] for further analysis and advice.