Southeast Asian countries are among those asking Russia for stocks of its as-yet-untested COVID-19 vaccine. Why are they getting on board so quickly, and what other options do they have?
Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among nations that have asked Russia for stocks of “Sputnik V”, its COVID-19 vaccine. Moscow is unlikely to turn them down as the fight to control the pandemic enters its next phase: “vaccine diplomacy”.
The Philippines plans to run trials of the vaccine in October with President Rodrigo Duterte initially keen to participate—though he was then advised against the idea. He also expects Russia to provide the vaccine for free. Moscow claims that Indonesia is one of the 20 nations to have expressed interest in the vaccine.
However, Sputnik V is not on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of nine vaccines that it classifies as being in the advanced stages of testing. The drug does not feature as part of the WHO’s COVAX programme, which aims to give poorer countries access to an approved COVID-19 vaccine.
Under the scheme, which has seen more than 150 countries sign up, the WHO will guarantee coverage for 20% of any country’s population, provided countries pay into the fund. Russia is not a signatory to COVAX, which means countries must approach them directly.
Is the Sputnik V vaccine safe?
Nobody knows whether the vaccine works or has any long-term side-effects. That will become clearer once Russia conducts Phase 3 trials and publishes its findings. It will follow due process and Naiyl M. Latypov, the Russian ambassador to Malaysia, tried to allay fears that Moscow has an ulterior motive for producing the vaccine so quickly.
In a letter to the New Straits Times, he wrote: “We are convinced that everyone should have equal access to the vaccine, regardless of his financial situation. To make it possible, Russian authorities are working on humanitarian aid programmes for developing countries.”
He also highlighted Russia’s previous involvement in polio vaccination development and confirmed that Moscow had shared information about the COVID-19 vaccine with Malaysia.
Russia’s efforts to supply Sputnik V to Southeast Asian countries will benefit all parties involved, provided that the vaccine is safe. Russia will get no interest from Canada, Europe or the US so has to offer it to markets more willing to engage. Those countries gain access to a vaccine that could both save lives and gain their governments some political goodwill.
It also enables Moscow to expand its influence in the region further. While it is already doing so by selling arms and creating military partnerships with ASEAN nations, vaccine diplomacy offers another opportunity to build relationships.
It is another arena in which it can disrupt existing ties Southeast Asian nations have with China and the US. With the US already fearing that China will win the race to produce a vaccine, Russia constitutes a third competitor that is already establishing a lead.
Are there any other options for Southeast Asian nations?
Richard Heydarian, a political analyst and professor at D La Salle University, called Duterte’s approach “vaccine or nothing” as he has now approached both China and Russia for vaccines. He is, perhaps, more desperate than most given that the Philippines has now experienced more cases of the virus than anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
However, all countries will do whatever they can to secure a vaccine, even if it means working with partners that they would not normally consider. Most will hedge their bets. While the UK has ordered 340 million doses of six different vaccines, others have taken a similar path, but within more modest means.
For example, while Vietnam continues to work on developing a vaccine, it has signed up to COVAX and applied to Russia directly. It wants between 50 and 150 million doses, some purchased and some donated. Should another non-COVAX signatory develop a vaccine, Vietnam will likely apply as that would guarantee it access to a vaccine, whoever produces it.
What progress is China making?
Chinese teams are pushing hard to develop a vaccine, both to protect their citizens and the rest of the world. Beijing claims it wants to make a vaccine that will be a “global public good”, also offering early access and loans to poorer nations.
While China has an interest in creating a vaccine to prevent further outbreaks and restore some of its damaged reputation, having one would bring other benefits. It could help restore relations and build literal and figurative bridges. “If China plays ‘vaccine diplomacy’ this is going to help project China’s soft power and help China to revitalise the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative,” predicted Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations.
Like Russia, China can expect little interest from Europe and the US so will turn to more friendly markets. It faces other challenges though: it will be hard enough to produce enough vaccines for its own people before trying to provide other countries in the region as well. Stepping up production of a vaccine is a far more complex business than accelerating the production of face masks and protective equipment.
Exporting defective equipment, which caused China to slip behind others, including Vietnam, in COVID-19’s “face mask diplomacy” battle, does not bode well. Some countries may not trust China’s ability to deliver a safe vaccine, at least not initially, after it supplied other substandard vaccines to children and fabricated records in 2018.
Russian advances are positive, but nothing is guaranteed
From arms to medicine, Russia’s influence in the region is growing. Providing Southeast Asia with a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine could save lives and bolster its reputation as it emerges as an alternative to China or the US.
Debates about the vaccine’s safety will continue until it conducts thorough testing but its willingness to work with others is laudable.
But there is no guarantee that any of the vaccines in development will work—the failure rate of vaccines, including those that progress to the advanced stages of testing, is high. Given this, it seems sensible to be cautiously optimistic about Sputnik V.
Nevertheless, it makes sense for countries to approach Russia early for stocks of the vaccine—as they would China, Japan, or any other country which might be able to help. When it comes to saving lives amid a global pandemic, keeping people healthy is every government’s primary concern—and the quicker they move to do so, the better.