Covid-19 vaccines are becoming important diplomatic currency


Two weeks earlier, the Indian Ocean island nation—total population, 98,000—received a separate shipment of 50,000 doses of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine manufactured in China, which is seeking to make strategic inroads in a region long seen by India as part of its sphere of influence.

Covid-19 vaccines are becoming an important form of diplomatic currency around the world, as nations jockey for soft-power gains. China and Russia are touting their own vaccines, as are Western drug companies.

Now India, a pharmaceutical giant that manufactured some 60% of global vaccines before the pandemic, is joining the fray, seeking to strengthen ties and expand its influence in its neighborhood and beyond.

Beijing has for years sought to derail Indian efforts to establish a military outpost in Seychelles that would allow New Delhi to keep tabs on Chinese naval and civilian vessels in the area. India has worked to blunt Chinese intrusions and helped build a network of coastal radar stations.

The end result of the dueling vaccine diplomacy here has been an unusual abundance of doses: the Seychelles now ranks third in the world in terms of the proportion of its population that has been inoculated, behind Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

This achievement could enable the island nation to reopen its tourism industry, the mainstay of the economy, as soon as next month, Foreign Minister Sylvestre Radegonde said. “It’s a tremendous benefit,” he said. “We appreciate that in our hour of need India, like China, is always present.”

The Pune-based Serum Institute of India is manufacturing millions of doses a day of the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford, and has committed to produce this year as much as a billion doses of another vaccine developed by Maryland-based Novavax Inc. once it receives regulatory approval. Two other Indian companies, Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila, are conducting trials of their own homegrown vaccine candidates.

Since starting vaccine exports last month, India has shipped 23 million doses, with 6.5 million of them donated by the government to regional neighbors like the Seychelles, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia—as well as to remote recipients such as Dominica and Barbados in the Caribbean.u

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Doses supplied by India

Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccines are slated to make up the bulk of the World Health Organization-led Covax global vaccine program, with 240 million doses expected to be shipped in the first half of the year—including 17 million earmarked for India’s rival Pakistan.

“Many countries, when they think vaccines, they think India,” said Ashok Malik, policy adviser to India’s ministry of external affairs.

Every week, Mr. Malik said, a special interministerial committee meets in New Delhi to discuss what amount of vaccines India’s own vaccination campaign can process, and authorizes the remainder to be exported.

“This was a commitment we made early on: we would be cognizant of our responsibility, we would not resort to vaccine nationalism,” he said. “People appreciate that we are not hoarding the vaccines at home. Whatever is available is being shipped out as soon as possible.”

So far, with the vaccination infrastructure still being set up, India has exported more than three times the amount of doses that it has supplied to its own citizens. Chinese vaccine makers, meanwhile, have been delaying shipments abroad as new outbreaks of the virus keep erupting at home.

“One of the challenges for China is how to balance the domestic vaccination needs and international demands,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That will in a way give India an opportunity to compete more effectively with China.”

On a recent evening, Serum Institute of India workers wearing blue protective equipment rolled out one of the latest deliveries: four pallets containing more than one million doses bound for South Africa. Big insulated boxes lined with ice packs were loaded onto a truck, which drove to an airport 100 miles away. The South African government purchased the vaccines.

Amid a global vaccine shortage, the company keeps getting orders from places where it hadn’t planned to export because rival suppliers have been running into production problems, said Serum Institute Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla. “The Chinese—who are actually excellent in everything they do—they’ve not been able to manufacture it the way that we have,” he said.

Only a tiny amount of vaccines made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE and by Moderna Inc., mainstays of the inoculation campaign in the U.S. and Europe, have been made available to the developing world, in part because of their high cost and the need to keep them cold.

Unlike Serum Institute, which is teaming up with Western companies, China—and Russia—are offering their own independently developed vaccines, and are publicly casting doubt on the efficacy and safety of Western-made products like Pfizer. For both, the ultimate aim is to bolster their geopolitical clout at the expense of the U.S. and allies.

To what extent India’s vaccine diplomacy works remains to be seen. In the Seychelles, the government that came to power in elections last year had campaigned against plans by its predecessor to lease parts of the remote Assumption Island to the Indian military. The vaccine donation didn’t sway it to accept Indian troops.

“Relations are excellent between our two countries. We have joint concerns about the safety and the security of the Indian Ocean, which is a shared ocean,” said Mr. Radegonde, the foreign minister. “But we’ve been over this military-base issue, and it is behind us and is something that is no longer on the table.”

The U.A.E., whose crown prince owns a residence in the Seychelles and frequently stays there, paid for the Chinese vaccine shipment.

Sri Lanka, too, has been caught in the rivalry between Asia’s two giants, with its 2017 agreement to lease the Hambantota port to China for 99 years viewed by New Delhi as a threat to India’s national security. Sri Lanka’s current government received 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India so far, and has yet to authorize the use of Chinese vaccines.

“We will be dependent on India for the vaccine, so to that extent the government of Sri Lanka as well as the recipients will be happy and grateful to India for providing the vaccine on time,” said Bernard Goonetilleke, chairman of the Pathfinder Foundation think tank in Colombo and a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Beijing and Washington. “But this is only one element of the relationship, and there are many elements. Whether it will help improve our bilateral relations, it’s difficult to say.”

Indian political scientist C. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, said India’s new vaccine diplomacy—while limited—is a valuable tool in New Delhi’s efforts to secure its neighborhood and prevent Chinese domination of the region.

“This doesn’t immediately translate into direct geopolitical gains,” Mr. Mohan said. “But it adds to the good side of the ledger for India: that India is there, and that it has capabilities.”

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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