Commentary: How COVID-19 vaccines are being weaponised as countries jostle for influence

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 neighborhood, this was an act of “vaccine nationalism”. In truth, Mr Draghi’s determination mirrored totally different variants of nationalistic behaviour, spurred on by geopolitical forces and compounded by COVID-19.

At 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 substances have been additionally blocked as nationwide well being providers competed for scarce provides. 

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

Worse, vaccine nationalism could be the precursor to “vaccine diplomacy,” a type of realpolitik that compels nations to leverage their nation’s vaccine capabilities for geopolitical acquire.

Virus Outbreak Cambodia

Boxes containing Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccines arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday on Mar 26, 2021. (Photo: AP/Heng Sinith)

But 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 under the edge of armed battle however are, nonetheless, disruptive to the workings of the worldwide system.

There can be no returning to the type of globalisation the world skilled over the previous 4 a long time. Consequently, state and non-state actors should adapt.

READ: Commentary: Concerns over long-term side effects could hold back Singapore’s COVID-19 vaccination programme


Consider 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 such as Sinovac and Sinopharm – regardless of lack of full last stage scientific trial information over their precise efficacy of Chinese 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 offers from the Putin authorities for free vaccinations, regardless of not getting access to different vaccines on the time. 

Although Phase 3 information wasn’t but out there on the time, the optics of British or American diplomats receiving a Russian vaccine would have been a propaganda coup for Moscow. 

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

In March, a surge in COVID-19 cases threatened to wreak havoc throughout the nation, which prompted the Rodrigo Duterte authorities to show to China for extra vaccines – although each countries 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

More 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 photograph: AFP/Handout)

As Beijing was supplying its vaccines to Manila, some 200 Chinese vessels have been shifting 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 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. Even as Chinese vessels have been dropping anchor at Whitsun reef, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was conducting conferences along with his counterparts from Japan, Australia and India – all members of the Indo-Pacific Quad safety discussion board – to begin preparations for a multilateral vaccine diplomacy marketing campaign.

One nation with rather a lot to achieve 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 12 months underneath license from, amongst others, corporations such as AstraZeneca.

READ: Commentary: This 71-year-old wants you to get a COVID-19 vaccine once you can. 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 countries around the globe – a direct problem to China’s vaccine diplomacy. New Delhi has already reached out to Manila and can present the Philippines with a gentle 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 warfare.

Its vaccine manufacturing capabilities are a significant 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 gives New Delhi with a historic alternative.


Vaccine nationalism has been linked to state-backed disinformation, propaganda and cyber intrusions – all key components 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 May 13, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration)

On the information 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 completed not solely to advertise its personal vaccine, the Sputnik V, however to sow confusion and distrust amongst citizenry of different countries.

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.

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

(Listen to the behind-the-scenes concerns and discussions going into what could be Singapore’s greatest vaccination programme ever on CNA’s 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 lots of the world’s poorer countries.

China moved rapidly to launch a worldwide vaccine diplomacy marketing campaign, selling itself as 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 should provide its Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines in additional than 60 nations, focusing on its neighbours as nicely as strategically essential states in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. It has made early inroads with its vaccine presents in Latin America and the Caribbean, as nicely as in Eastern and Central Europe.

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

Here, an economic-diplomatic-technology suggestions loop turns into obvious as Beijing-administered vaccines are linked to different important providers and merchandise supplied by Chinese corporations. 

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

READ: Commentary: Requiring proof of vaccination for travel raises bigger questions

Chinese state-funded firm BGI, for instance, which already gives COVID-19 testing and DNA sequencing providers for 80 countries, presents a compelling instance of the type of scale, depth and energy of vaccine diplomacy.

It obtains DNA samples from billions of individuals around the globe, 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 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 can be donated to countries around the globe, underneath the banner of vaccine diplomacy.

Mass vaccination program for the elderly people, in Bogota

A field with China’s SINOVAC vaccines towards COVID-19 is seen throughout the mass vaccination program for the aged individuals at Movistar Arena in Bogota, Colombia on Mar 9, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez)


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

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

Scientific analysis was accessible as a worldwide commons. Open-sourced synthetic intelligence and highly effective machine studying helped produce efficient vaccines in lower than a 12 months – an absolute marvel of science and know-how.

Hybrid chilly warfare has produced contradictions between governments, markets and non-state actors, due to this fact, which can lengthen past vaccines. Affected events should learn to navigate by way of these contradictions.

READ: Commentary: Taiwan is becoming the biggest test in US-China relations

Just 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 result of extremely charged negotiations between the UK and the EU, and which countries would win the appropriate to obtain its COVID-19 vaccines.

Alex Capri is Research Fellow, Hinrich Foundation and Visiting Senior Fellow, NUS Business School. His new guide Techno-Nationalism: How its Reshaping Trade, Geopolitics and Society” (Wiley) is due in shops in September.


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