Before the pandemic, neither of the two countries was particularly known for vaccine production. But when COVID-19 began spreading, both sensed an opportunity. For China, it was a chance to reshape the narrative so that the country would be remembered as the source not of the pandemic, but of the solutions that brought it to an end. Russia, meanwhile, saw the opportunity to showcase its science and technology. China had produced more than 225 million doses as of March 26, nearly half of which were sent abroad, according to Airfinity, a London-based science-analytics company that tracks global vaccine production. Russia is responsible for 14 million doses, 31 percent of which have been exported elsewhere.
The U.S. has produced just less than a quarter of the world’s vaccine supply, though scarcely any of it has gone beyond its own borders. Of the 164 million doses made in the country, it has agreed to part with only 4 million doses of its AstraZeneca stockpile, which the Biden administration committed to give to its neighbors in Canada and Mexico. Across the Atlantic, Britain and the European Union have also largely been consumed by their domestic needs.
The U.S. and its European partners have contributed billions of dollars to a multilateral initiative aimed at equalizing vaccine distribution around the world, but it guarantees to provide participating countries with only enough doses to cover 20 percent of their population, a far cry from herd immunity.
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That’s where China and Russia come in. The pair have supplied vaccines to 49 and 22 countries, respectively, across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Brazil, which is once again the global epicenter of the pandemic, has struck deals securing tens of millions of doses of Russian and Chinese vaccines. Venezuela is relying solely on Russian and Chinese jabs. In the Middle East, even strategic U.S. partners such as Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have turned to them for supplies.
For many of these countries, accepting the vaccines isn’t a political decision so much as a public-health one. Czech President Miloš Zeman, who has long sought closer ties with Beijing and Moscow, has been a vocal proponent of using their jabs—a decision he says has less to do with his own foreign policy than with the state of the pandemic in the country, which has the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate per capita. “In a war—which this situation is, though we fight against an invisible enemy—you need to do whatever you can to make it stop,” Zeman told me in an email. “I frankly don’t think that receiving vaccines means losing independence, or any similar repercussions. It’s a business deal, for God’s sake.”
Russia and China are not the only countries engaging in vaccine diplomacy. India and, to a smaller extent, Israel have both sought to export doses to select countries as a means of generating strategic goodwill and furthering their diplomatic interests. The main difference, of course, is that India and Israel aren’t Western adversaries, nor are they using vaccines that haven’t been approved by Western public-health institutions. The West stands to gain from India’s and Israel’s vaccine diplomacy as much as it does from China’s and Russia’s: The distribution of safe and effective vaccines, regardless of where they come from, is vital to ending this global crisis. By bridging the accessibility gap, India and Israel, much like China and Russia, are contributing to that aim.