Focus: Vaccine diplomacy

Diplomatic Shot in the Arm

Jul. 14, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic, the likes of which has not been seen in living memory, has precipitated a global reset. The way we experience education, work, and, most importantly, each other has taken on a new form. Indeed, as the global economy licks its wounds, its very return to pre-COVID conditions is contingent upon the successful roll out and efficacy of vaccination.

Unfortunately, there are always elements who view tragedy as nefarious opportunity. Albeit on a small scale, COVID-19 has been of those instances, where in Mexico six people were arrested for attempting to sell fake BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines for around USD2,000. Fortunately, the larger story has been a very different and positive one since Mexico commenced its vaccination program on December 24. One that speaks of an arms-across-borders moment that is likely to have lasting effect on multinational relations.

In October 1957, at the height of the Cold War, beep, beep, beep was the sound of the Soviet Union taking the lead in the space race. In a clear bid to see political history repeated, Russia has named its own vaccine Sputnik V. It would see early interest abroad, including Argentina. Vaccination of Argentina's frontline healthcare workers with 300,000 doses of Sputnik V commenced on Christmas Eve of 2020. Mexico, too, has already taken delivery of Sputnik V, while the US could but look on.

Sino the Times

What's more, Mexico has inked emergency approval of the COVID-19 vaccines of Chinese companies CanSino Biologics and Sinovac Biptech. In March 2021, Mexico took delivery of 1 million doses of the latter firm's Sinovac vaccine. Mexico's Foreign Minister indicated that a further 22 million doses would be ordered for delivery between March and May. Mexico is also set to purchase 12 million vaccine doses manufactured by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) once approved by the health regulator.

Mexico's Call for Unified Response…

Inequality of vaccination was always going to be an issue as even developed nations struggle to meet respective inoculation targets. In February, President López Obrador, during an official visit of his Argentinian counterpart Alberto Fernandez, had petitioned the UN and developed nations to act swiftly to meet the vaccination needs of developing countries, citing the fact that 80% of supplies had been earmarked for just 10 countries. His call for “universal brotherhood” did not fall on deaf ears in Washington, already keen to smooth over the abrasive relations that had prevailed with Biden's predecessor and be at the top table of vaccine providers.

…Prompts Washington's Initiative

The AstraZeneca vaccine, given the OK for use in several countries including the US' northern and southern neighbors, has yet to receive emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration. This has given the US the opportunity to deplete a stockpile of 7 million doses by loaning 2.5 million doses to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada. As of late March 2021, the latest numbers from Johns Hopkins put the US vaccination rate at over 12% of the population, while Canada trailed on just 1.7% and Mexico on a mere 0.5%. The global average is at around 3%. This win-win move, in theory, will not only assist with the vaccination of frontline workers, but also contribute to health integrity at respective borders. In fact, the Biden arrangement came as Mexico announced restricted travel on its southern border with Guatemala to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
President López Obrador observed that the vaccines would help Mexico reach its goal of inoculating everyone above 60 with a first shot by the end of April. Mexico had earlier sought to kickstart its inoculation drive with vaccinations from Russia and China. López Obrador noted that the deal represented the essential US-Mexican relationship characterized by “friendship and cooperation across all spheres.”

Meanwhile, with a USD4-billion contribution, President Biden has affected a clear reversal of Trump's distancing from COVAX, the global initiative backed by the World Health Organization with the daunting task of sourcing and distributing vaccines to disadvantaged nations. Seeking to sidestep Beijing, the White House has also pitched the idea of rustling up 1 billion doses for Asian countries with Japan, Australia, and India.
Whether viewed as diplomacy, national posturing, or purely commercial imperative, the world's vaccination drive remains central to any hopes of a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. Ultimately, only the widespread availability of vaccination and its efficacy can open borders for good.