COVID-19 vaccination doses of the Serum Institute of India depart for Barbados and Dominica

Unlike India, whose soft power projection simply magnifies its accelerating importance in the world, both China and Russia have serious charges of corruption, bullying and even genocide against them

So now we know. Or perhaps we don’t. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported this week that it is “extremely unlikely” that the coronavirus leaked from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 first emerged. It was more likely, they say, that the virus, which has now claimed more than 2.3 million lives worldwide, had jumped from animals to humans. The “lab accident theory” did not warrant future study, insisted the WHO team. Beijing was delighted.

China has faced heavy criticism for downplaying the severity of the initial outbreak of the mysterious pneumonia-like illness in late 2019, and for not acting quickly enough to alert the WHO of evidence of human-to-human transmission. But then China has form on delaying information in such cases. Remember the SARS pandemic which first surfaced in Southern China in 2003? It was later discovered that Chinese officials had suppressed and deliberately withheld information from the public for a critical period of many months. For the same reason, sceptics of the WHO report on Covid-19 say it was inevitable that they would come up with hardly anything, due to the long delay in taking action.

China first tried to close the story down straight away in December 2019, punishing doctors, including whistle-blower Li Wenliang, for spreading rumours, before reversing and locking down Wuhan in an unprecedented public health response. It was global diplomatic pressure that caused Beijing to allow any outside inspection, and then only after sealing China’s borders for a whole year, a time during which all evidence could be removed. Few believe that China offered the degree of transparency, cooperation and time needed for the WHO investigation to carry any degree of confidence.

Meanwhile, as the world competes for jabs, China is scrambling to mend its image by turning to the export of its two vaccines in an attempt to mask suspicions of its role in the origins of Covid-19. Russia is also pushing its own vaccine in the hope of repairing its damaged national image.

The race to produce a vaccine has inevitably turned out to be a competition for prestige and soft power. In fact, the geopolitics of the vaccine are redrawing the fault lines that were thought to be a thing of the past. Some commentators detect a whiff of the old Cold War in this strategic rivalry, noting that Russia chose to call its vaccine “Sputnik”. The obvious aim of the Kremlin is to remind the world of the “Sputnik moment”, when the Soviet Union surprised and alarmed the Americans by launching the first rocket into space in 1957. Russia’s marketing and deployment of their vaccine is clearly focused at achieving a soft power victory in the developing world.

As a world in panic raced to develop a new vaccine last year, Russia mounted a disinformation campaign to build suspicions against vaccines from Western companies, while simultaneously hacking into their biomedical databases. Moscow’s early target was the Oxford team, who were working on a vector vaccine, different from mRNA-based vaccines such as Moderna and Pfizer. Suspiciously, Sputnik V, which the Russian military has already pumped into its troops’ arms even before the final trials were completed, turns out to be very similar to Oxford’s.

Last week, the Lancet, a leading British science journal, published a peer-reviewed article showing that the Sputnik V vaccine was above 90% effective in stopping the virus in a phase 3 clinical trial. Moscow immediately proclaimed Sputnik V to be “a vaccine for all mankind”, but many eyebrows were raised by this impressive result, as all the data used in the peer review was supplied by Russia. Was it accurate? You can never be confident when dealing with data from Russia, as the world discovered when Moscow was caught doping its athletes in 2014, an event which led to a 4-year ban in 2019 from all Olympics and global sports. Russia has a track record of misreporting and lack of transparency and many epidemiologists are treating the Sputnik “affectivity” with a healthy degree of scepticism. Nevertheless, Russia is sure to capitalise on the “success” of the vaccine and build on its geopolitical soft power by scaling manufacturing and distribution in Russia and in other countries. Many nations are looking for a cheap vaccine and Sputnik V will be a long-term instrument of foreign influence for Moscow, particularly in Africa.

China has also been able to take full advantage of the health crisis by filling the void left by the West by its vaccine nationalism. Western countries bought 90% of the available doses of the two American vaccines, a purchase which created a very visible North-South “every-man-for-himself” image. President Xi Jinping exploited this image of greed by adopting a “holier-than-thou” posture at the World Health Assembly on 18 May last year, promising that any vaccine developed by China is destined to become a “global good”. If exports are an indicator, eight months later China is on its way to realising this promise.

China’s state-owned company, Sinopharm, has announced an efficacy rate of 79% for its vaccine, while trials in the UAE have revealed a success rate of 86%. Turkey is administering the other Chinese vaccine by Sinovac and claims 91% effectiveness, while similar trials in Brazil show only 50%, causing confusion and suspicion over the actual efficacy. No peer reviews have been carried out on either Chinese vaccines. Morocco is due to receive priority access to 10 million doses in exchange for participating in Stage 3 trials, and Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo are in talks for priority delivery of the vaccine. The delivery of millions of Covid-19 vaccines is the latest chapter in China’s decade-long “health diplomacy” efforts across the world to countries already feeling its soft power in the Belt and Road Initiative.

As you would expect, the war of words is playing its part in the soft power-play. Chinese state media has published dozens of articles criticizing other vaccines and accusing Pfizer of developing a vaccine that requires ultra-cold-storage facilities, something that developing countries don’t have. These articles also attempt to counter doubts raised in the Western press over the efficacy of Chinese vaccines and boast of the benefits of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines’ easy transportation and storage requirements. Chinese propaganda also has a dig at the “experimental nature” of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, stressing that Chinese vaccines have been developed using “mature technology”.

As huge numbers of vaccine shots are required, cost is an important factor for cash-strapped countries. Moscow emphasises that their Sputnik V is less than $10 a shot, while US vaccines are sold for $20 to $30. Not only cheaper, it boasts, but “ours can also be stored at regular fridge temperatures”. The export cost of the Chinese vaccines remains unclear, but in China they are said to be about $60 per dose. This contrasts with the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine which costs only $4 a jab.

While China is focusing on Africa, Russia is busy negotiating with countries in the Middle East, where its vaccine policy is proving to be a major factor in developing trust with its permanent partners in the region. Preparations are underway for the transfer of technology to establish the production of Sputnik V in Turkey and Egypt, as well as to conduct clinical trials in Saudi Arabia. Another beneficiary of the Russian vaccine has been the Palestinians. Even though Israel is leading the race to inoculate its people, using the Pfizer vaccine, it has only recently sent 2,000 doses to be administered to Palestinians in the occupied territories. But the Palestinian Authority has reportedly already received 10,000 doses of Sputnik V and is set to receive 50,000 more soon. War-torn and impoverished Syria, on the other hand, is still waiting for an answer from Moscow on whether it can provide Sputnik V for free.

To be successful in their push for soft power, however, China and Russia will have to compete with India, whose Serum Institute of India is the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world. With its two approved vaccines to date, Covaxin and the locally produced version of UK’s Oxford vaccine, Covishield and more to come, India has the opportunity to boost its own soft power by supplying “Made in India” vaccines to the world under the WHO COVAX global initiative. Not only are they inexpensive, but as the Pune institute already supplies vaccines to more than 170 countries across the world and vaccinates 65% of the world’s children, it’s in prime position to make India the world leader in fighting the pandemic. But unlike India, whose soft power projection simply magnifies its accelerating importance in the world, both China and Russia have serious charges of corruption, bullying and even genocide against them. Whether vaccine soft power can help in correcting these negative images remains to be seen; but in any event, India could be the winner.