Plagues have consequences

Let’s call it… China’s won the vaccine diplomacy contest

By Eric Olander

Posted on October 28, 2020 16:33

FILE PHOTO: Media tour at Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech in Beijing
A man works in a laboratory of Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech, developing an experimental coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Beijing, China, September 24, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows admitted this weekend what many of us have known for a long time: that the United States has all but given up in the fight against COVID-19. 

“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows told CNN’s Jake Tapper on the Sunday morning talk show ‘State of the Union’.

With 8.8 million infections and more than 226,000 deaths at the time of writing on Wednesday, this is what defeat looks like.

While it’s Americans that are suffering disproportionately from the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic, the impact of Washington’s failure to contain the outbreak will no doubt have far-reaching geopolitical consequences.

“The coronavirus has re-ordered the competition for global power,” concluded David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times at the end of his new HBO documentary ‘The Perfect Weapon‘.

“The country that wins the race for the vaccine and the treatment of COVID-19 will become a new kind of power able to spread that vaccine around the world,” added Sanger.

And while US and European companies are among the leading contenders to emerge first from phase three clinical trials with approved COVID-19 vaccines, their home governments may not be able to reap the diplomatic dividends anywhere near as much as China will.

The key distinction between China’s vaccines and those produced by Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and other US and European companies is that China’s treatments are all state-backed.

Just as Huawei, ZTE, StarTimes, and many other Chinese companies benefit from government support, so too will SinoVac, SinoPharm, and the other state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical companies that are now building a massive network to distribute vaccines around the world.

READ MORE China: Africa to have priority access to COVID-19 vaccine

Some of that supply will be delivered through the vaccine alliance Covax while others will be manufactured locally at new facilities like those now under construction in Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere.

Separately, the Chinese government is also helping Gulf countries including UAE and Saudi Arabia to run clinical trials of its new vaccines while at the same time building facilities in places like Ethiopia to mass-produce pandemic mitigation tools such as COVID-19 test kits.

When a Chinese-made vaccine is finally approved and receives World Health Organization pre-qualification, Beijing will likely leverage the country’s unrivalled logistics capabilities (after all, this is the same country that can build 10+ million iPhones in a month) to get it out in what will no doubt be the largest product launch in human history.

But most importantly, all of this will be done through a fusion of state and corporate power. Just as this combination has proved so formidable in technology (Huawei) and finance (ICBC), assuming China’s vaccines actually work, it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, for US and European countries to compete in purely geopolitical terms.

READ MORE South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine trial is paused, and that’s good news

“Plagues have consequences,” warned Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria in his new book on the post-pandemic world where he posits that the international order after this pandemic is going to look a lot different than it does today.

And if you closely watch China’s aggressive vaccine diplomacy push in North Africa and the Gulf region, in particular, then you’ll see how that impact is becoming more visible by the day.

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