The EU’s vaccine issues could be a boon for China

What’s happening? The European Commission has confirmed it will bring in a mechanism allowing member nations to restrict the exporting of Covid-19 vaccines being manufactured in the EU. The move comes amid a row between the bloc and AstraZeneca regarding the supply of jabs. Under the measures, EU customs authorities can block the export of vaccines unless shipments are authorised. Such authorisations should only be granted after ensuring vaccine manufacturers have delivered on contractually agreed doses to the EU, officials said. The restrictions could cut vaccine supplies to the UK, Canada and Australia as well as a number of developing nations, while their implementation also briefly threatened to override part of the Brexit deal.

Why does this matter? The dispute between the EU and manufacturers over the supply of Covid-19 vaccines has been well-covered. Receiving less attention is the broader geopolitical consequences of the bloc trying to safeguard doses for itself.

The EU had been slated to provide surplus vaccines to poorer countries, particularly those in North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. While it appears the bloc still has plans to export to low-income nations, its own struggles in procuring doses, and subsequent quasi-protectionist stance, means an opportunity may now arise for the likes of China and India to assert diplomatic influence by providing these nations with a larger number of jabs.

How can vaccines be used to assert influence? Commentators have noted how countries can create greater economic and diplomatic ties with other nations by providing developing regions with vaccines. For China, this could also help repair its global image, given the pandemic started in Wuhan and questions still remain about Beijing’s initial response to the coronavirus.

China has already faced some accusations of expecting political concessions in return for vaccine supplies. It was recently claimed a delay in a shipment of the jabs to Turkey was a move designed to put pressure on the Turkish government to ratify a treaty that may see the extradition of Uighur defectors back to China. The Turkish government and Beijing denied this.

The social angle – With the likes of Pfizer and AstraZeneca pre-occupied with fulfilling Western orders – and with their vaccines requiring substantial cold-chain infrastructure – developing nations may have no choice but to look elsewhere. Recent studies, however, have found the effectiveness of certain Chinese-manufactured jabs falls far below those developed in the West. Concerns have also been raised about India’s Covaxin jab, which experts say was approved for domestic use in the absence of adequate efficacy data.

It’s already been noted poorer countries may not be fully inoculated until 2024 (compared to the end of 2021 for some Western nations). They may also have to settle for a less-effective vaccine, raising some justifiable social concerns.

The problem with “vaccine nationalism” – While the EU’s (and the UK’s, for that matter) desire to “look after its own” is understandable, it perhaps fails to take into account the global nature of the pandemic.

Medical professionals have recently taken to social media to point out that the variated strains of the coronavirus are popping up where it has been allowed to circulate. The nightmare scenario would be if one of these mutated strains proved resistant to vaccines. Already, Novavax’s jab (which is due to be manufactured in large quantities in India) is said to be less effective against the “South African” variation of the virus.

Vaccinating some countries, therefore, while letting the coronavirus run wild in others, potentially risks everyone being set back if vaccine-resilient mutations are allowed to propagate.

Nick Jardine

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