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Commentary: How COVID-19 vaccines are being weaponised as international locations jostle for affect

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SINGAPORE: Mario Draghi, the Prime Minister of Italy, just lately blocked the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses from his nation to Australia.

To many within the worldwide group, this was an act of “vaccine nationalism”. Actually, Mr Draghi’s resolution mirrored completely different variants of nationalistic behaviour, spurred on by geopolitical forces and compounded by COVID-19.

On the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, for instance, China, the US, the EU, India and the UK all imposed export restrictions on personal protective equipment (PPE). Shipments of ventilators and antiseptic chemical compounds have been additionally blocked as nationwide well being companies competed for scarce provides. 

This behaviour contradicted the norms of worldwide commerce, science and social trade, which, for many years, have benefitted from a extremely interconnected and interdependent world system.

Worse, vaccine nationalism stands out as the precursor to “vaccine diplomacy,” a type of realpolitik that compels nations to leverage their nation’s vaccine capabilities for geopolitical achieve.

Virus Outbreak Cambodia
Bins containing Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccines arrive at Phnom Penh Worldwide Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday on Mar 26, 2021. (Picture: AP/Heng Sinith)

However vaccine diplomacy has make clear an much more basic fact: A hybrid cold war is underway, involving the US, China and different pivotal states.

Its by-product is hybrid warfare, a mixture of diplomatic, financial, cyber and information-related actions, all of which fall beneath the edge of armed battle however are, nonetheless, disruptive to the workings of the worldwide system.

There shall be no returning to the type of globalisation the world skilled over the previous 4 many years. Consequently, state and non-state actors should adapt.

READ: Commentary: Issues over long-term unwanted side effects may maintain again Singapore’s COVID-19 vaccination programme


Contemplate what has been enjoying out on the world stage. 

Beijing just lately eased restrictions on journey into China for worldwide travellers, on the situation they present proof of vaccination with China-made brands equivalent to Sinovac and Sinopharm – regardless of lack of full ultimate stage medical trial knowledge over their precise efficacy of Chinese language vaccines.

When Russia grew to become the primary nation to authorize a vaccine (the Sputnik V, which now has a reported efficacy price of 92 per cent) American, British and different Western diplomats stationed in Moscow rejected gives from the Putin authorities at no cost vaccinations, regardless of not accessing various vaccines on the time. 

Though Part three knowledge wasn’t but obtainable on the time, the optics of British or American diplomats receiving a Russian vaccine would have been a propaganda coup for Moscow. 

Past vaccine nationalism, the Philippines just lately grew to become a sufferer of vaccine diplomacy in a really tangible approach.

In March, a surge in COVID-19 instances threatened to wreak havoc throughout the nation, which prompted the Rodrigo Duterte authorities to show to China for extra vaccines – though each international locations have been locked in an escalating confrontation over disputed territory within the South China Sea.

Over two hundred ships were first spotted on March 7 at Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometres (175
Greater than 200 ships have been first noticed on Mar 7, 2021, at Whitsun Reef, about 320km west of Palawan Island within the South China Sea. (File picture: AFP/Handout)

As Beijing was supplying its vaccines to Manila, some 200 Chinese language vessels have been transferring to occupy Whitsun reef, an atoll claimed by each China and the Philippines.

The timing of Beijing’s South China Sea gambit was no coincidence: Manila’s dependence on Chinese language vaccines meant the Duterte regime had primarily agreed to forfeit its problem to Beijing’s energy play.

Beijing’s transfer within the Philippines sparked a response from the US and its allies. At the same time as Chinese language vessels have been dropping anchor at Whitsun reef, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was conducting conferences together with his counterparts from Japan, Australia and India – all members of the Indo-Pacific Quad safety discussion board – to start preparations for a multilateral vaccine diplomacy marketing campaign.

One nation with so much to realize from vaccine diplomacy is India. The Serum Institute of India (SII) is the world’s largest producer of vaccines, making roughly 1.5 billion doses per yr below license from, amongst others, corporations equivalent to AstraZeneca.

READ: Commentary: This 71-year-old needs you to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you possibly can. Right here’s why

READ: Commentary: Misinformation threatens Singapore’s COVID-19 vaccination programme

In January, India launched the Vaccine Friendship initiative, which goals to produce made-in-India vaccines, free of charge, to growing international locations world wide – a direct problem to China’s vaccine diplomacy. New Delhi has already reached out to Manila and can present the Philippines with a gradual provide.

India, which views China’s rise as a strategic menace, has been trying to capitalise on its rising significance to Washington within the broader context of a US-China hybrid chilly battle.

Its vaccine manufacturing capabilities are a serious asset, notably as New Delhi hopes to advertise Make-in-India initiatives to draw strategic provide chains as they decouple from China. Having Washington’s endorsement supplies New Delhi with a historic alternative.


Vaccine nationalism has been linked to state-backed disinformation, propaganda and cyber intrusions – all key parts of hybrid warfare.

FILE PHOTO: Man holds laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture
A person holds a laptop computer pc as cyber code is projected on him on this illustration image taken on Could 13, 2017. (Picture: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration)

On the knowledge entrance, for instance, Russia, allegedly engaged in digital disinformation operations to undermine confidence in Pfizer’s and different vaccines produced within the US and Europe. This was performed not solely to advertise its personal vaccine, the Sputnik V, however to sow confusion and distrust amongst citizenry of different international locations.

In cyber-space, vaccine nationalism has been linked to a surge in cyber-intrusions and the theft of information at pharmaceutical corporations, NGOs and authorities companies.

Within the early days of the pandemic, for instance, in 2020, Pfizer, an American firm, and its German accomplice, BioNTech, reported that delicate paperwork had been hacked in a cyberattack on the European Drugs Company (EMA). Like different regulatory companies, the EMA regulates and approves medicines and has intensive data on trial medicine.

(Take heed to the behind-the-scenes concerns and discussions going into what could be Singapore’s largest vaccination programme ever on CNA’s Coronary heart of the Matter podcast:)


Early on, COVID-19 wreaked havoc with decentralised, pluralistic governments within the US and Europe, leaving them conspicuously absent from the world stage.

As Western governments turned inward to deal with COVID-19, China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomats used social media to color American and European pharmaceutical corporations as grasping opportunists – peddling unsafe vaccines whereas depicting their governments as self-serving and callous. This narrative has resonated on each social media and conventional media in most of the world’s poorer international locations.

China moved shortly to launch a world vaccine diplomacy marketing campaign, selling itself because the supplier of a sorely wanted public good.

READ: Commentary: The Quad has a plan and it’s not all about China

Beijing has introduced it is going to provide its Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines in additional than 60 nations, focusing on its neighbours in addition to strategically necessary states in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Center East. It has made early inroads with its vaccine gives in Latin America and the Caribbean, in addition to in Jap and Central Europe.

China’s vaccines are to be distributed as restricted “donations” or as “samples” for bigger purchases sooner or later. In different situations, the vaccines shall be supplied with credit score ensures from Chinese language State-owned banks, a well-recognized apply used to push Chinese language telecommunications know-how and different infrastructure into international locations alongside its Belt and Street initiative (BRI).

Right here, an economic-diplomatic-technology suggestions loop turns into obvious as Beijing-administered vaccines are linked to different important companies and merchandise offered by Chinese language corporations. 

For instance, as telemedicine and medical applied sciences change into ubiquitous, an ocean of personal knowledge will change into accessible via a worldwide vaccination marketing campaign administered by state-backed entities.

READ: Commentary: Requiring proof of vaccination for journey raises greater questions

Chinese language state-funded firm BGI, for instance, which already supplies COVID-19 testing and DNA sequencing companies for 80 international locations, gives a compelling instance of the type of scale, depth and energy of vaccine diplomacy.

It obtains DNA samples from billions of individuals world wide, which has triggered fears of digital dystopia on a large scale.

The US and its allies are mobilising. A report from the non-profit ONE Marketing campaign discovered that 5 nations, together with the European Union, are on monitor to have over 1 billion surplus doses after vaccinating their populations. Many of those shall be donated to international locations world wide, below the banner of vaccine diplomacy.

Mass vaccination program for the elderly people, in Bogota
A field with China’s SINOVAC vaccines in opposition to COVID-19 is seen through the mass vaccination program for the aged individuals at Movistar Area in Bogota, Colombia on Mar 9, 2021. (Picture: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez)


Whereas governments pursue self-serving realpolitik, the scientific, medical and company communities, to a big extent, stay country-agnostic.

This was on show through the preliminary race for a vaccine, as researchers, well being professionals and different stakeholders shared knowledge and collaborated utilizing open-sourced genome sequencing software program on the web.

Scientific analysis was accessible as a world commons. Open-sourced synthetic intelligence and highly effective machine studying helped produce efficient vaccines in lower than a yr – an absolute marvel of science and know-how.

Hybrid chilly battle has produced contradictions between governments, markets and non-state actors, due to this fact, which is able to prolong past vaccines. Affected events should discover ways to navigate via these contradictions.

READ: Commentary: Taiwan is changing into the largest check in US-China relations

Simply weeks after the Draghi proclamation, police in Italy found one other 29 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines, stashed away in a warehouse in Anagni, Italy. 

It was not stunning, then, that AstraZeneca’s official response was that the corporate was making an attempt to maintain out of the political fray whereas it awaited the end result of extremely charged negotiations between the UK and the EU, and which international locations would win the proper to obtain its COVID-19 vaccines.

Alex Capri is Analysis Fellow, Hinrich Basis and Visiting Senior Fellow, NUS Enterprise Faculty. His new e book Techno-Nationalism: How its Reshaping Commerce, Geopolitics and Society” (Wiley) is due in shops in September.

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