Wednesday

25th May 2022

Opinion

The 'Cold War' diplomacy behind Covid-19 vaccines

  • Our current system relies on transparency, collaboration, and credible institutions. A rewrite of these global health norms to match the Chinese and Russian governance models would have long-term consequences for Europe and the world (Photo: Wikimedia)

The race is on to vaccinate Europeans, and it's a competition between East vs West. There's a reason the contest has been termed "a new Cold War". It just might not be the reason you think.

Most commentaries on the rivalry between vaccine-producing countries focus on influence and soft power.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The main goal of countries procuring vaccines is to save lives. But in a realpolitik world, relationships with source or donor countries also sustain alliances—which can be leveraged for other diplomatic priorities. This is the theory behind "vaccine diplomacy."

However, diplomatic leverage is only part of the story. Vaccine diplomacy is also about validating the underlying principles of those vaccine programs.

In other words, Russia and China aren't just selling vaccines—they're peddling a value set that undermines international norms. It is this ideological clash that makes the Cold War metaphor more apt than pundits realise.

The first principle endangered by the Russian and Chinese vaccination programs is transparency. In the case of Covid-19, this means openly sharing data within the medical community.

In contrast, Chinese state-run vaccine producers have failed to publish late-stage clinical trial data, and not a single one has allowed a scientific peer review of its vaccine.

Western leaders like Emmanuel Macron have criticised this lack of transparency, as have experts within China.

Leading Chinese drug researcher Ding Shen recently called for Chinese pharmaceutical companies to release original clinical trial data to allow experts to accurately assess the drugs' efficiency—and safety.

Transparency concerns are only one reason why worries remain about the safety of these vaccines.

China and Russia widely deployed homegrown vaccines before completing clinical trials, as researchers ran roughshod over established scientific protocols and ignored a WHO recommendation that all vaccines undergo full testing before distribution.

Russia registered the Sputnik V vaccine for public use after it was tested on just 76 individuals. At the time, some 40 scientists signed an open letter noting irregularities in even this small data set.

Gamble

Sputnik V has since been confirmed safe and 91.6 effective, according to a peer-reviewed paper published in British medical journal The Lancet in February.

However, about a dozen countries gambled with their citizens' lives by approving Sputnik V well before that paper's publication, including Serbia and Hungary.

Safety concerns also raise questions about the role (and credibility) of regulators.

Drug safety agencies like the European Medicines Agency are designed as bastions of public health. When member states bypass the EMA approval process, as Hungary did when it became the first EU country to approve both the Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccines for emergency use, they undermine the existing health system.

And if they get it wrong, it can have devastating consequences on public health and trust, including fuelling the already potent anti-vaxxer movement.

While criticism that the EU's collective approach to vaccine procurement has been slow is justified, there can be no analogous critique of the EMA dragging its feet to approve non-Western vaccines.

No Chinese or Russian developer has yet sought EMA sign-off (though the EMA is beginning to review data on Sputnik V should an application be filed).

Nor should drug regulators in Western countries outsource the approval process to vaccine-producing countries.

This is precisely the case in Hungary, where a government decree permits emergency approval of any vaccine administered to at least one million people worldwide - without review by the EMA or even the domestic regulator.

However, millions of doses of both the Sinopharm and Sinovac shots were administered in China before the jabs received Chinese regulatory approval.

The credibility of China's regulator is further undermined by incidents like manufacturer Sinovac's bribing of Chinese authorities for vaccine approvals, and a 2018 scandal in which defective vaccines for childhood ailments were administered to hundreds of thousands of babies.

To the individual observer, debates about vaccine diplomacy may seem out of touch. Communities decimated by Covid-19 rationally prioritise the swiftest possible delivery of lifesaving jabs.

Czech president Miloš Zeman said "vaccines have no ideology." This is simply not true.

Selecting a vaccine equates to endorsing – and therefore perpetuating – the underlying values of vaccine programs. As such, choosing a Chinese or Russian vaccine directly undermines the international system constructed to protect global health.

Our current system relies on transparency, collaboration, and credible institutions. A rewrite of these global health norms to match the Chinese and Russian governance models would have long-term consequences for Europe and the world.

Delays based on production capacity or unfulfilled contracts must be righted.

The EU should deliver on its commitments to help vaccinate the citizens of the Western Balkans and to the COVAX scheme. But at the same time, a timeline that allows for the transparent, complete testing of vaccines for effectiveness and safety and full approval by regulators ought to be embraced.

Author bio

Allison Carragher is a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Europe focussing on the Western Balkans.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU Commission casts doubt on Russian Sputnik vaccine

Hungary is buying up vaccines from Russia and China. But tricky regulatory oversight questions remain as the European Commission sheds doubt on the quality and safety of Sputnik production.

Analysis

Hungary breaks with EU on Russia, China vaccines

While all governments are seeking to secure vaccines as fast as they can so they can open up their economies, so far only Hungary's Viktor Orban has chosen to break with the EU's vaccine strategy.

EU exported over one billion vaccines so far

The EU has exported more than one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines this year, and announced it will donate 500 million extra doses to poorer countries in the coming months.

EU-UK vaccine 'nationalism' spat intensifies

Britain has rejected claims from the European Council president Charles Michel, who accused the UK of imposing a ban on vaccine exports. Meanwhile, one-third of vaccines produced in the EU last month were exported to the UK.

Column

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is back

Ukraine is finally understood — and hopefully Belarus will be soon too — as a self-standing society and state with close links to its EU neighbours, rather being relegated to Russia's backyard.

Brexit hostility to Good Friday Agreement is damaging UK in US

Democratic Unionist MPs could affirm unequivocally they support the Good Friday Agreement, with no return of a border with physical controls on movement of people, goods or agricultural produce within the island of Ireland — but they won't.

News in Brief

  1. France 'convinced' Ukraine will join EU
  2. Von der Leyen: Russia hoarding food as 'blackmail'
  3. Legal action launched against KLM over 'greenwashing'
  4. Orbán refuses to discuss Russia oil embargo at EU summit
  5. Turkey's Erdogan snubs Greek PM
  6. ECB: Crypto may pose a risk to financial stability
  7. UK PM Johnson faces renewed questions over Covid party
  8. Sweden gives 5th Covid shot to people over 65, pregnant women

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic delegation visits Nordic Bridges in Canada
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersClear to proceed - green shipping corridors in the Nordic Region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers agree on international climate commitments
  4. UNESDA - SOFT DRINKS EUROPEEfficient waste collection schemes, closed-loop recycling and access to recycled content are crucial to transition to a circular economy in Europe
  5. UiPathNo digital future for the EU without Intelligent Automation? Online briefing Link

Latest News

  1. Orbán oil veto to deface EU summit on Ukraine
  2. France aims for EU minimum-tax deal in June
  3. 'No progress in years' in Libya, says UN migration body
  4. Toxic pesticide residue in EU fruit up 53% in a decade
  5. Orbán's overtures to Moscow are distasteful and detrimental
  6. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is back
  7. EU aims to seize Russian assets amid legal unclarity
  8. Close ties with autocrats means security risk, Nato chief warns

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us