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The race for a Covid-19 vaccine reflects the emerging new world order

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Dr Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy, at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

The race to produce the world’s first effective Covid-19 vaccine has become a battle for prestige between the US, the UK, Europe, China and Russia. In many ways, it reflects the battle for supremacy in the new world order that is taking shape.

Last month marked a watershed in global efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech announced that they had successfully developed a Covid-19 vaccine that has a 95% efficacy rate (the highest success rate thus far).

The vaccine has passed a late-stage clinical trial and the company has the capacity to produce more than 1 billion doses by 2021. This announcement ignited hope across a world that has been devastated by Covid-19 since it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

Moderna, another US firm, reported earlier in the same month that its vaccine candidate has a 94% efficacy rate. Russia’s Sputnik V was the first vaccine to show an efficacy rate of more than 90%, having reported a 92% success rate on 11 November for the interim trial results. The UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has an efficacy rate of more than 70%, with capacity to produce around 3 billion doses by 2021.

While the UK’s vaccine development seems to have more domestic than international significance as Prime Minister Boris Johnson seeks to boost his legitimacy in light of poor management of Covid-19 – and the fact that the country is no longer a significant global player compared with the US, China and Germany – the US’s efforts have significant implications for its international image as a declining global leader.

The power reconfiguration in the global arena is exemplified by the rise of other countries, especially China, and the US’s loss of its primacy in international politics. This decline stems from three major crises Washington has encountered in the past two decades – the global backlash from the 2003 war on terror, the 2007-08 financial crisis, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that respectively undermined America’s global image, economic strength and disaster management capacity. This was complicated by Donald Trump’s “America First” posture and disengagement from international affairs.

As early as 2012, Christopher Layne, US international relations expert, observed that, “the unipolar era has ended and the unipolar exit has begun”.

In a bid to redeem its global image, it was imperative for the US to lead the global race for a Covid-19 vaccine, not only to tackle its domestic ignominy as the state with the largest number of Covid-19 cases but also to act as the messiah to save the world from an Armageddon and by extension boost its global standing. However, the Trump administration’s understanding of global politics poses a challenge. It remains to be seen whether the Joe Biden administration will take full advantage of the US’s current lead in the Covid-19 vaccine race to enhance the country’s influence on the global stage.    

To be sure, China’s capacity to swiftly tackle the pandemic at home in comparison to the West scored the Asian power remarkable prestige. However, Beijing would have significantly enhanced its great power status if it had emerged as the first state to develop a vaccine and subsequently save the world from a pandemic holocaust.

In a desperate move to win the vaccine race, China and Russia approved their vaccines before the phase three trials (the final and most important phase). As early as June, Beijing approved an experimental vaccine that was used by its military. On 11 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved Sputnik V for public use, despite not providing data on its testing and the fact that it was at prephase three trials.  

While China’s inroad to vaccine production is fairly recent compared to the US and Europe, it is both the world’s largest producer and consumer of vaccines. In view of the fact that the pandemic broke out in China, Beijing led the vaccine race in the initial stages. However, the success of US and European pharmaceutical companies has relegated China to the back burner.

This is compounded by a study in the Lancet – the leading medical journal – that reveals that Chinese company Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine candidate’s efficacy is moderate as it generates lower levels of protective antibodies compared to its competitors. China’s move can be seen in light of Beijing’s desperate attempt to revamp its image that has been battered by the fact that the virus originated in that country.

Given the havoc the virus has wreaked on economies and people’s health resulting in the “new normal” across the globe, Beijing would arguably save face if it were the state to develop a safe and effective vaccine. It is in this context that in May 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced to the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the great power would deploy its Covid-19 vaccine as “a global public good”. It then joined COVAX, a WHO-backed global initiative that aims to facilitate the equitable distribution of a safe and effective vaccine.

To be sure, China’s capacity to swiftly tackle the pandemic at home in comparison to the West scored the Asian power remarkable prestige. However, Beijing would have significantly enhanced its great power status if it had emerged as the first state to develop a vaccine and subsequently save the world from a pandemic holocaust.

In light of the fact that Covid-19 is Chinese-born, an efficient and effective Chinese vaccine would have significantly bolstered the country’s global image. While the US seems to have adopted vaccine nationalism, having refused to join COVAX, it remains unclear how the global power intends to distribute its vaccines across the globe, particularly in developing states. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the development of China and Russia’s vaccines, Beijing and Moscow have pledged to distribute their vaccines to needy countries across the world.

In what can be regarded as soft balancing, Russia has launched an offensive campaign across the world to not only promote its vaccine and respond to the pandemic but also to undermine Western vaccines and responses. For example, the chief executive of the Russian Direct Investment Fund which funds Sputnik V, noted that, “Western vaccine manufacturers rely on experimental, little studied and not proven in the long-term technologies, encountering obstacles in their clinical trials.”

Although Russia claims to have won the vaccine race, detractors have raised concerns around Moscow’s apparent decision to cut corners and not follow standard procedures. To counteract the negativity around Sputnik V, the Russian president stated at the BRICS summit in November 2020 that, “Russian vaccines exist. They work, and they are safe and efficient… The question is how to arrange the mass production.”

Naming the vaccine Sputnik V is reminiscent of the Cold War era in which the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite and subsequently won the space race against its superpower rival, the US. Indeed, the disintegration of the USSR following the end of the Cold War that resulted in the country’s loss of its superpower status led to an acute schizophrenic posture as Russia could not prevent its declining influence in international affairs.

Since the emergence of Putin in 2000, Moscow has embarked on a new wave of assertiveness in international affairs and pursued a foreign policy that promotes Russia as a great power, especially through its balance of power politics. It is against this backdrop that Russia’s attempts to distort the world order to undermine US influence at the United Nations Security Council, its BRICS membership, as well as its Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy can be understood.

The race for a Covid-19 vaccine is far from over. While the US and European states are currently leading it, it is too early to tell who the ultimate winners and losers will be. DM

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