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Returning to Multilateralism to Ensure Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Access

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Returning to Multilateralism to Ensure Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Access

Both China and the United States can and should do more to ensure equitable access to vaccines around the world.

Returning to Multilateralism to Ensure Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Access
Credit: Depositphotos

In a shift of position by the Biden administration, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced on May 6 that Washington would give its support to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) protections afforded to the COVID-19 vaccines. The proposal was tabled by India and South Africa in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow more vaccine producers to manufacture the vaccines for low-income countries. A day later, the World Health Organization (WHO) also approved the emergency use of China’s Sinopharm vaccine, a move that was touted by certain health experts as a “game-changer” as it allows for more vaccine doses to be supplied to the developing world.

That both developments took place in rapid succession speaks to the dire situation that the Global South is mired in. As with many other global public goods, the COVID-19 vaccines have also become an essential good, but the developing world has difficulty securing doses for their pandemic responses. In essence, the world is now witnessing inequitable access to vaccines between developed countries hoarding most of these goods and the poorest countries, which lack them.

Further complicating the situation is the exacerbation of geopolitical rivalry among vaccine powers, which took global pandemic management away from the WHO. As highlighted by Suerie Moon, as well as Simon Frankel Pratt and Jamie Levin in their recent opinion pieces, the pandemic’s severity did nothing to stop the geopolitical machinations of current vaccine powers such as the U.S., EU, China, India, Russia, and Israel. In particular, the China-U.S. rivalry has played out in vaccine politics.

Deviating from the former Trump administration’s “American First” agenda, the new Biden administration has declared that “America is Back” on the global stage. From Washington’s Indo-Pacific regional security to global multilateral institutions and affairs, the Biden administration has made it clear that “reoccupying” global leadership remained well on its agenda, particularly in light of China and Russia being perceived by Washington as filling the global leadership void left by the Trump administration. 

Of the two geopolitical rivals, China is proving to be a strong contender regardless of Beijing’s repetition that it does not seek global leadership at the expense of the United States. Seeking to be a responsible global actor in the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been selling and donating vaccines to more than 69 countries around the world at a time when the developed countries in the West are containing the pandemic on their shores and hoarding much of the world’s vaccine supply, focused on their own inoculation programs. Be it purposeful (as in the Trump administration’s “American First” agenda) or not (the West’s focus on containing the pandemic at home), the predominant Western powers have certainly left a vacuum for China to fill part of global responsibilities that were previously undertaken by the West. But with the pandemic coming under control in the U.S., the new Biden administration is now setting its sights overseas with Washington pledging to donate the COVID-19 vaccines (in partnership with the Quad member states) to the Indo-Pacific countries in March. 

The Limits of Bilateralism

As Pratt and Levin put it, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the North-South gap in which richer countries are steadily pursuing herd immunity while many of the world’s poorest nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are lagging behind due to acute vaccine shortages. Arguably, “vaccine diplomacy,” as has been actively executed by both the U.S. and China, is not filling the multilateral gap to ensure equitable access to every country. There are clear limitations in the bilateral commitments both Washington and Beijing made to specific developing countries that are in line with their national interests. While China is providing those in the South with much-needed vaccines, the involved volumes of doses are still far from the real demand. As Zhao Suisheng highlights well, it is still a big question if China can produce enough doses of vaccines to meet its ever-expanding customers, not to mention its own domestic needs. 

On the other hand, the U.S.-led Quad’s pledge to allocate vaccines for the Indo-Pacific nations may not be in the best interest of the poorest African and Latin American countries since they, too, are urgently in need of the vaccines as much as their Indo-Pacific counterparts. Whereas Biden’s recent pledge to donate a certain amount of its 80 million vaccines (AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson) to COVAX offers a glimmer of hope in filling the shortfall of 150 million doses in the WHO-backed facility, it still falls short of convincing the world that Washington is coming back as a global leader in the multilateral system. Without doubt, there is still ample room for the U.S. to contribute at the multilateral level, a feature which may very well help Washington dissociate itself from China, which is relying on bilateral channels to supply its vaccines to low-income countries.  

A Return to Multilateralism

Considering these limitations, there is an urgent need for both the U.S. and China to play their parts within the WHO and for European nations to enhance their existing contributions to the multilateral institution. For the U.S., it needs to allocate a fair amount of vaccine doses to COVAX as a show of its resolve to be a “returned” global leader and recapture the high moral ground and to ensure equitable vaccine access around the world. Also, Washington should persuade and lead the North in a collective action to temporarily waive IP protection for COVID-19 vaccines, but with strong safeguards against misuse by certain quarters. 

As for China, it should capitalize on the WHO’s inclusion of the Sinopharm vaccine for its COVAX facility and provide a fair amount of vaccine doses that corresponds with its status as a rising global power. Given the possibility that its other vaccines will also be endorsed by WHO for emergency use in the future (as Sinovac was on June 1), it is timely for Beijing to contribute more at the multilateral level instead of relying on bilateral channels. This will underscore its status as a responsible multilateral actor and demonstrate to the world that its vaccine supply abroad is not entirely a matter of pursuing national political interests. 

Guest Author

Chee Leong Lee

Chee Leong Lee is currently the Collaborative Research Fellow with Anbound Malaysia, an independent think tank based in Kuala Lumpur. Previously the Taiwan Fellow and Visiting Scholar for China, his research includes China’s subnational diplomacy in the ASEAN region, Taiwan's soft power in Southeast Asia, and ASEAN’s international affairs in general. He holds a Ph.D. from Monash University.