Recently, Russia’s ambassador to Japan, Mikhail Galuzin, has been busy conducting sales diplomacy in Kasumigaseki and Nagatacho. “We have started production of the world’s fastest developed coronavirus vaccine. Please try using the Russian vaccine.”
His efforts follow President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that regulatory approval had been granted to Sputnik-V, a coronavirus vaccine developed by the Gamelaya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in coordination with the Russian Defense Ministry.
Apparently, Russia has already begun vaccinating medical workers. Vaccinations for the general public are scheduled to become available early next year. The vaccine is given in two doses, and maintains immunity in recipients for about two years. During his announcement, Putin also revealed that one of his daughters had been inoculated — a move that evoked images of Russian Empress Catherine the Great’s voluntary vaccination against smallpox in 1768.
Coronavirus vaccines under development in the U.S. and Europe are currently in the final Phase-3 of clinical trials. Russia, however, skipped Phase-3 trials and immediately moved to approve the vaccine. The Moscow-based Association of Clinical Trials Organizations urged the Russian Health Ministry to postpone approval of the vaccine, on the grounds that potential risks, including side effects, were not yet known. These objections were overridden, and more than twenty countries have already expressed interest in purchasing the Russian vaccine.
China is even more intent on becoming a “vaccine superpower.” During a speech to an annual meeting of the WHO in May, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that the Chinese-developed vaccine would become a “global public good.” China is already conducting clinical trials of nine experimental vaccine candidates, and five of these are in the final stage of development. CanSino Biologics and Sinovac are readying annual supplies of between 100 to 200 million doses of their vaccines, with CanSino set to begin final, Phase-3 clinical trials of its vaccine on around five thousand people in Saudi Arabia.
China has proposed offering priority distribution of a vaccine to Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and the Philippines. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is also hard at work on “vaccine diplomacy:” in telephone conversations, he has already promised the Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministers China’s cooperation in vaccine development. Close on Wang’s heels, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also called on both foreign ministers to cooperate in vaccine development.
Many countries, and especially developed countries, have either embarked on vaccine development or are pursuing the advance purchase of vaccines from the pharmaceutical companies developing them through early lock-in arrangements. The rich win when it comes to vaccine acquisition.
This “home country first” phenomenon was also evident in the early stages of the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak in 2009. Because developed countries had already bought up large quantities of the vaccine, the WHO solicited a pledge from nine countries, including Australia, Canada, and the U.S., to send ten percent of their vaccine supplies to developing countries. Yet even this pledge was conditional upon the prior widespread distribution of the vaccine within each donor country. This time, the “home country first” phenomenon is all the more explicit. A typical example is Peter Navarro, President Trump’s appointee as director of trade and manufacturing policy. Navarro recently declared: “If we have learned anything from the coronavirus and the swine flu H1N1 epidemic of 2009, it is that we cannot necessarily depend on other countries, even close allies, to supply us with needed items, from face masks to vaccines.” The coronavirus crisis has further fueled this kind of vaccine nationalism.
However, extracts derived from the Chilean evergreen Quillaja Saponaria (soapbark tree) are used as an essential adjuvant in vaccines. These extracts are refined in Sweden. If Chile or Sweden cannot obtain the vaccine through other means, they could use these facts as choke points in order to secure it. Within the supply chain, toxic vaccine nationalism can boomerang back to punish the very countries that practice it. This is why international cooperation remains essential.
In fact, a fight against the global pandemic cannot be mounted without international cooperation. Japan is in a vulnerable position, as it lags behind on vaccine development and production. It must redouble its support of international cooperation.
When the WHO was established shortly after the end of the second world war, there was considerable debate over whether or not to admit Japan and Germany. Neither country had yet joined the newly established United Nations. It was the U.S. that overcame objections and pushed for WHO membership to be extended to these defeated countries. Consequently, the organization was named the World Health Organization, rather than the U.N. Health Organization. The WHO became the foothold by which Japan and Germany returned to the international community; both countries subsequently joined the U.N. This is worth remembering as we proceed with vaccine diplomacy.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun.