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U.S. Covid-19 'vaccine diplomacy' is catching up to China and Russia's efforts

American-made Covid-19 vaccines need to makeup for their counterpart's deficiencies.
Photo illustration: Red and white medicine vials over a grid.
Chinese and Russian vaccines are looking less impressive than American-made doses.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

What a difference a few months can make. After a speedy public relations-boosting campaign, it’s not exactly clear how effective Russia and China’s domestically produced vaccines really are against Covid-19. That’s an especially troubling development given the rise of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which is taxing the limits of even the more effective American-made vaccines.

The seeming collapse of Moscow and Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy efforts means that the United States needs to be there to pick up the slack, providing safe, effective vaccines to the world. Doing anything less wouldn't just be a missed opportunity for America's standing in the world — it would mean leaving the world at risk of even stronger strains of Covid-19 developing in the meantime.

Back in April, NBC News reported that the United States was falling behind Russia and China in leveraging doses of Covid-19 vaccine as a diplomatic tool:

Although China and Russia deny it, experts say they are beginning to see how Beijing's and Moscow's strategy of selling or donating their vaccines abroad is greasing the wheels of their international relationships and allowing them to expand their influence throughout the world.

It's a development that should cause grave concern for the United States and other democracies, according to former U.S. ambassadors and other ex-diplomats.

It’s less clear now whether the deals in place were all that good for Moscow and Beijing’s clients. The World Health Organization has approved two Chinese vaccines for emergency use globally, both of which are produced using inactive coronaviruses. But the New York Times reported on June 22 that while over 90 countries are distributing shots donated from China, major outbreaks are still ongoing in several of them:

In the Seychelles, Chile, Bahrain and Mongolia, 50 to 68 percent of the populations have been fully inoculated, outpacing the United States, according to Our World in Data, a data tracking project. All four ranked among the top 10 countries with the worst Covid outbreaks as recently as last week, according to data from The New York Times. And all four are mostly using shots made by two Chinese vaccine makers, Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech.

“If the vaccines are sufficiently good, we should not see this pattern,” said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “The Chinese have a responsibility to remedy this.”

That’s a big difference compared to the United States, where the three vaccines in use have caused new cases of Covid-19 to plummet in the months since they’ve been rolled out. While no vaccine can fully prevent infection, the ones being administered in the U.S. are extremely effective — the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA-based vaccines each boast an efficacy rate of over 90 percent; the one-dose Johnson and Johnson-produced version is around 66.3 percent effective at preventing Covid-19 infections.

The main Chinese vaccines — Sinopharm and Sinovac — have relatively lower efficacy rates, at 78 and 51 percent respectively. But that isn’t to say that the Chinese-made vaccines are worthless or garbage — compared to the alternative, they’re clearly much needed and appreciated as they still manage to keep many infections from developing into severe, life-threatening cases.

It’s less clear now whether the deals in place were all that good for Moscow and Beijing’s clients.

That’s definitely more than can be said for Sputnik V, the Russian-made coronavirus vaccine. Like China, Russia has doled out doses of its vaccine to friendly countries around the globe like Hungary, the Philippines and Bolivia. The World Health Organization has yet to sign off on the drug, though, despite it being billed as the “world’s first registered Covid-19 vaccine.”

And at home, Russians seem extremely skeptical of Sputnik and the two other Russian Covid-19 vaccines. NBC News reported last week that “Russia's vaccination rate is one of the lowest in countries where vaccines are widely available”:

Just 14 percent of Russia’s 146 million people have been vaccinated with at least one dose, compared to 53.5 percent of Americans, according to Our World in Data, a monitoring project based at the University of Oxford.

An ambitious plan to vaccinate 30 million Russians by June — which involved giving away cars and free groceries — has fallen short by a third.

South Africa’s government has shown interest in purchasing doses of Sputnik V from Moscow, despite its reported reduced effectiveness against the beta variant of Covid-19 that first appeared there. The developer of Sputnik says that the vaccine shows less of a drop in efficacy against the beta variant than other vaccines and is thus “much more preferable.” The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority has also yet to clear Sputnik V or Sinovac for use in the country.

And as Samuel Ramani, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, recently detailed in Foreign Policy, Moscow has shown a penchant for overpromising and underdelivering on its vaccine deliveries:

On Jan. 10, Algeria became the first African country to authorize Sputnik V. Algeria’s budget director, Abdulaziz Fayed, announced plans to distribute 500,000 vaccines free of charge. By April 7, only 50,000 doses had arrived in Algeria, and the large-scale local production of Sputnik V vaccines was delayed until the fall of 2021. This trend repeated itself elsewhere; the combined deliveries of Sputnik V to three of large markets, Tunisia, Algeria, and Guinea, stood at just 100,000 by March 12. Although the African Union recently praised Russia’s stabilizing role in Africa and its eagerness to cooperate with Moscow on security issues, the Sputnik V vaccine deal has so far had little impact.

Taken together, Russia and China’s faltering is in one sense good news for the United States. Last month, leaders of the seven richest countries, including President Joe Biden, announced that the G-7 would donate 1 billion coronavirus vaccine doses to the poorer countries over the next year.

That’s well and good — but still around 10 billion doses short of the total that the WHO thinks would be needed to fully vaccinate enough people to provide herd immunity against Covid-19. And while it would be easy to rest on schadenfreude as Beijing and Moscow flounder, this isn’t a zero-sum world where their difficulties automatically boost the United States. If anything, the U.S. is more at risk thanks to their current struggles.

As the more robust delta variant of Covid-19 in particular continues to increase its foothold around the world, becoming the dominant strain of the disease, it’s more important than ever that the world cooperate to get needles into arms. Anything the Biden administration can do to meet that goal has to be a top priority — any opportunities to show up global competitors is just a bonus.

CLARIFICATION (July 7, 2021 4:35 p.m. E.T.): This article has been updated to specify the results of a scientific study on the efficacy of Sputnik V against the beta variant of Covid-19 and to include statements from the vaccine’s developer on that topic.