President Biden’s Vaccine Diplomacy is Heating Up

  • President Biden is making a strong comeback to the World Health Organization 
  • The United States is finally ready to share its surplus vaccines, pledging to surpass Russia and China´s donations to COVAX 
  • Biden’s allies are open to sharing but developing nations suffering the most from the pandemic are hesitant to hope 

Why is Biden’s heat level hot?

Answer: The U.S. is coming back strong to the global health arena.

One of the first, among many actions taken by Biden as he assumed office was to retract Trump´s abandonment of the World Health Organization. The scientific community and health experts rejoiced as the United States’ funding is crucial for the organization to carry out its tasks, particularly during a global health crisis such as Covid19. In addition to this welcomed return, on June 10th, 2021, as more and more Americans get vaccinated, Biden announced the U.S. is ready to share its surplus with developing nations. However, it is worth noting China and Russia have been supplying these same nations for some time now… 

The announcement came after the G7 summit where Biden pledged 500 million doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to developing nations. Only a week earlier, the Biden Administration pledged 25 million doses of the same vaccine. In this initial pledge on June 3rd, Biden promised to give 75% of 25 million surplus vaccines to COVAX, the global vaccination program set up by the WHO. This decision came after intense pressure from the WHO officials in Africa urging action to aid the truly distressing yet under-discussed situation on the continent. Of the first 19 million doses Biden pledged to COVAX, approximately 6 million doses will go to South and Central America, 7 million to Asia, and 5 million to Africa. 

The remaining 25% of vaccines will be distributed under US Government discretion and directed towards its allies and partners in Mexico, Canada, South Korea, the West Bank, and Gaza, India, Ukraine, Kosovo, Haiti, Georgia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as for United Nations frontline workers. Press Secretary for President Biden, Jan Psaki, assured this would occur “as quickly as we can logistically get those out the door.” 

Biden’s hot donations have not gone unnoticed by other world leaders that are now joining the sharing bandwagon. In the G7 meeting which took place in Cornwall, UK, G7 countries pledged a total commitment of 870 million doses to COVAX to be delivered by the end of 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote it is time wealthy countries shoulder their responsibility in getting everyone vaccinated. Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron supports Biden´s call for waiving vaccine patents to cheapen production. All this support highlights the rising temperature of the United States as President Biden shifts foreign policy towards cooperation. 

Who is changing Biden’s temperature?

Answer: China and Russia´s lead in global vaccine distribution efforts, aka vaccine diplomacy

Trump’s decision to leave the WHO last summer created a vacuum in the organization, and the global health arena in general, and other leaders took notice. As vaccine production started to increase, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, mainly through bilateral agreements with other nations, have already been donating and exporting many vaccines abroad. In President Biden´s words:

“You know, there’s a lot of talk about Russia and China influencing the world with vaccines.  We want to lead the world with our values — with this demonstration of our innovation, ingenuity, and the fundamental decency of the American people.”

President Biden, Source: White House

According to the Chinese State Council and  Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China has offered COVID-19 vaccine assistance to 53 developing countries at their request as well as exported, or is planning to export, vaccines to 22 nations. In fact, Xi Jinping has closed vaccine deals with many developing nations and is already supplying to the Philippines, Pakistan, Cambodia, Ecuador, and many more. Some estimate more than 16.57 million doses have been delivered. Not to mention that Xi Jinping has also pledged 10 million jabs to COVAX as a donation. Whether Chinese “assistance” is beneficial to the receivers is open for debate and largely specific to each country.

Putin has joined Xi in his endeavor to export vaccines to developing countries, establishing agreements to manufacture 260 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine with Chinese companies. While the EU, except for Hungary, has yet to approve the vaccine, Russia has dealt with India, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, South Korea, and the African Union among others. Pledges and multilateral donations, however, are rare. As the Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev stated:

“We will be working with COVAX, but definitely we will not be substituting COVAX for the approach we’ve been using till now to basically supply vaccines to countries directly.”

Mr. Dmitriev, Source: Devex

Biden´s move to increase US vaccine donations to developing countries would therefore solidify the United States as the world’s biggest donor to COVAX, outpacing the United Kingdom, Germany, and the EU, previously the largest donors. That said, the factors driving Biden are far more complex than mere competition with his geopolitical allies and foes.

What is driving Biden?

Answer: Supply and demand, making America great again, or avoiding criticism?

While Biden´s decision to return to the WHO is predictable and strategic, his pledge to donate vaccines mostly through the COVAX system, is driven by more complex factors, some more controversial than others. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Biden, stated that the United States’ goal of sharing the vaccines is in service of ending the pandemic globally. With an overarching aim to get as many vaccines to as many people as fast as possible, Sullivan concluded the issue is “as simple as that.” Is it though?

The first essential and undeniable factor in Biden´s generosity is a positive externality of the American success at securing the vaccine supply and exceeding the high demand for the jab. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that of the 372 million doses shipped by the federal government to states, about 305 million have been administered. While very impressive, there is a new problem. Demand has fallen sharply, leaving some states with fully packed shelves of perfectly good vaccines and no American arms to use them on. 

For example, North Carolina reduced its deliveries by 40% last week, while South Carolina only requested 21% of its original order. While demand for the vaccine internally was predicted to fall, there is growing and well-founded demand from public health experts and doctors for better logistical solutions, such as sharing, to avoid good vaccines dying on a shelf. It is thus the right time for the United States to share. 

However, the current surplus which has actually placed Biden under heavy criticism is not the only driver of his generosity. There is an unquestionable interest in stopping the pandemic abroad as COVID has continuously shown to have little respect for national borders. “As long as this pandemic is raging anywhere in the world, the American people will still be vulnerable,” Biden said in a statement. “And the United States is committed to bringing the same urgency to international vaccination efforts that we have demonstrated at home.” Therefore, even for the harshest cynics, ending the pandemic abroad is a driver of the leader’s hot move. 

Finally, Biden´s move and immense support for COVAX could be driven by a larger desire for the United States to regain traction as a global hegemony, safeguarding its reputation (and Biden’s). Both the leader and his cabinet have stated that the United States is not seeking to get anything in return from the countries they give vaccines to. In Jake Sullivan’s words:

“We are not seeking to extract concessions, we are not extorting, we are not imposing conditions that other countries who are providing doses are doing.” 

Mr. Sullivan, Source: AP News

While political conditioning seems far-fetched, there are reputational factors that undeniably forced Biden to amp the temperature of US action. Biden´s administration has been heavily criticized for its absence in the global struggle against Covid19, especially in Latin America and India. This urge is shared by the global community and quite damning. Biden addressed these reputational complaints by stating the US’ commitment to share is greater than the efforts of others:

“This will be more vaccines than any country has actually shared to date — five times more than any other country — more than Russia and China, which have donated 15 million doses.”

President Biden, Source: White House

What does this mean for you?

Answer: You might get to lose that facemask (eventually)

Sharing surplus vaccines is good news for everyone. Even though not every American, Chinese or Russian is vaccinated, the fact that the current supply of vaccines has exceeded current demand in the United States and other nations should be met with enthusiasm and pragmatism. These nations (solely wealthy ones) can produce enough vaccines to cover their internal demands but also to help others out. This means that the production capacity of the United States, China, or the UK has the potential to get you vaccinated in Mexico or Ghana. However, pragmatism must accompany hope. Having transparent and efficient systems of distribution that are effective and minimize waste is a must in overcoming the global struggle against COVID19. 

Biden´s hot decisions could directly impact you regardless of your location. As President of the United States, Biden’s actions are likely to aid COVAX to maximize its impact and vaccination rates in poorer regions. He could also encourage cooperation and more sharing among other world leaders, as evidenced in the recent G7 pledge to distribute 1 billion vaccines to struggling countries. Even by competing with China or Russia for the best vaccine diplomacy, Biden’s hot streak could be the beginning of a truly global effort to get us all vaccinated.