How should Europe deal with vaccine diplomacy?

Vaccines against covid-19 are currently one of the most sought-after commodities. But while Western countries have given priority to vaccinating their own populations as quickly as possible up to now, countries like China and Russia, and most recently also Israel, are taking advantage of the situation to do diplomacy with vaccines. Commentators warn against these offensives and also against vaccine nationalism.

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Aargauer Zeitung (CH) /

A risky game

Those who play political games with vaccines are only harming themselves, the Aargauer Zeitung points out:

“Countries like Israel and China are making a big thing out of vaccine distribution on the the global stage. ... Excess vaccines are being given away to other countries - but only if they show that they are grateful to the donors. ... This is neither shocking nor scandalous. In the case of the current pandemic, however, it is dangerous. If Israel continues to refuse to share its vaccination miracle with the population in the occupied Palestinian territories, the virus will continue to spread. And unlike Israel's spurned neighbours, Covid isn't deterred by border walls, no matter how high they are.”

Večernji list (HR) /

A new cold war

The selfish short-sightedness of European leaders is allowing Russia and China to increase their geopolitical influence, says Večernji list:

“According to data from the [British data analysis] agency Airfinity in December, rich countries, home to 14 percent of the world's population, have already bought up 53 percent of the vaccine available on the world market. At the time, poorer countries didn't have a single contract with the pharmaceutical companies. China and Russia use this kind of situation to strengthen their presence in Africa, Asia and South America. ... The 'Europe First' perspective (the EU has also forgotten the Balkans, where Russia and China have prevailed with their vaccines) is tacitly shared by many of Europe's statesmen. ... The cold war over vaccines will continue for some time to come.”

Új Szó (SK) /

Fight fake news from Russia

Új Szó warns against disinformation about the vaccination campaigns in Europe:

“There are already numerous Russian articles claiming that the European Medicines Agency has approved the Sputnik vaccine, which is simply not true. ... The aim of Russian disinformation operations - strategic misdirection - is to create uncertainty so that so much contradictory information is circulating on the subject that the reader eventually gives up on searching for the truth. ... Self-defence in the information field is just as important for us as vaccination plans. It's no coincidence that the name Sputnik refers to the Cold War space race.”

Ria Nowosti (RU) /

An implausible change of strategy

The state news agency Ria Novosti sees the EU's sudden interest in Sputnik V as a PR fiasco for the Union:

“Currently, Europe's leading media outlets are virtually bombarding their audiences with positive publications about Sputnik V. Clearly, after a months-long aggressive smear campaign against the Russian medication, public opinion now needs to be quickly reversed because it looks like the Russian jab will be given a key role in vaccinating the EU population. ... Formally, the scenario is that the new publication in The Lancet has opened everyone's eyes to its true qualities. But as it turns out, preparations for a production site for the vaccine are already in full swing in Germany.”

De Morgen (BE) /

Leave geopolitical disputes out of it

De Morgen advocates selling vaccines under an international flag:

“Putin clearly wants to whitewash his dirty vest with the vaccine, hence the disinformation campaign against Western vaccines. But geopolitical problems like this are the last thing the world needs in a pandemic. So one lesson for the future is that it would be wise to find out how to keep as much distance as possible between vaccine developments and nationalism during pandemics. ... Any weapon against the virus should be used completely independently of any geopolitical disputes. If we can make vaccine development more immune to this, we'll be stronger come the next pandemic.”

Új Szó (SK) /

A different vaccine for every political orientation

In Serbia, where widespread vaccination is already taking place, the choice of vaccine is also becoming a political statement, observes Új Szó:

“In Serbia we can currently see political marketing at its most intense. Political orientation determines the choice of vaccine. Head of government Ana Brnabić, who is known for her liberal views, opted for the US vaccine, while the pro-Russian Minister of the Interior Aleksandar Vulin has naturally been vaccinated with Sputnik V, while President Aleksandar Vučić has put his faith in the Chinese vaccine.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

Not the time for knee-jerk reactions

In view of the new data on Sputnik V's efficacy Europe should give up its scepticism, the Süddeutsche Zeitung recommends:

“Putin's coup of initiating a widescale vaccination campaign without sufficient data was considered unscrupulous and was widely considered to be aimed solely at enabling Russia to claim it got there 'first', before the US, Europe and China. Moscow's jab was written off as unsafe and lacking transparency. ... The East-West conflict is over, but resentment lives on. It's high time to set our prejudices aside and, in view of Europe's current vaccine shortage, order Sputnik V if necessary - if and when the results are confirmed. ... The fact that Russian researchers emphasise that the final assessment is still pending increases confidence in the vaccine.”

Aftonbladet (SE) /

Don't leave vaccination to Moscow and Beijing

Aftonbladet, on the other hand, calls for a vaccination Marshall Plan to prevent Russia and China from widening their sphere of influence through vaccination diplomacy:

“Without the US Marshall Plan after World War II, when 15 billion dollars were used for a record-breaking reconstruction of Europe, our world would have looked very different today. The question is whether democracy would have been seen as a matter of course. ... The situation is different now than it was in 1947. We're not facing a war, but a pandemic. But the threat is global, and a reminder of why a transnational agreement is needed. And the Russian and Chinese advances must be seen for what they are - a threat to democracy. With Joe Biden now in the White House, a Marshall Plan for global vaccination would be a feasible option. Why not together with the EU?”

Ukrajinska Prawda (UA) /

Watch out for Pandora's box

As a non-EU country, Ukraine is also relying on Chinese vaccines. Lyubov Tsibulska of the Crisis Media Center warns against the Russian jab in Ukrayinska Pravda:

“Even before the New Year celebrations our analytical group detected increased activity among Russian and pro-Russian actors in Ukraine. While we were all sitting at home eating our New Year's dinner, two important narratives were being pushed: while Europe is vaccinating its population at full speed, it doesn't seem to care about Ukraine. Ukraine won't get Western vaccines either. Russia wants to help and give the Ukrainians its vaccine. ... And if, under considerable pressure, the Ukrainian authorities agree to accept the Russian vaccine, it will open a Pandora's box that will create a domestic and foreign policy crisis.”

Ilta-Sanomat (FI) /

A risky experiment

In Finland, vaccine shortages are currently being addressed by not adhering to the recommended intervals between doses for the Pfizer vaccine. A big risk, complains Ilta-Sanomat:

“Just a week ago, on January 28, the European Medicines Agency EMA specified that the second jab of the Pfizer vaccine should be given three weeks after the first. ... The EMA has also stated that postponing the second vaccination beyond 12 weeks goes against the approval requirements. However, Finland has set the EMA recommendations aside and is now leaving 84 days between shots. That takes it into completely uncharted waters. ... No one can say for sure where this will lead.”

Denik (CZ) /

Russian vaccine? You must be joking!

Deník fiercely opposes the idea advocated by Novinky.cz of purchasing Russian vaccines:

“It took a long time to raise the willingness among Czechs to be vaccinated to 60 percent. Buying vaccines from Russia or China that are not approved in the EU could completely undermine this hard-won success. ... The idea that it would be possible to persuade the Czechs to go along with this is absurd. Especially not now that the political and social elite has already been vaccinated under various pretexts with the tried and tested substances from Pfizer or Moderna. The idea that the Czech state could force Czechs, in other words EU citizens, to be vaccinated with an unauthorised Russian vaccine seems more like a bad joke.”

Le Monde (FR) /

Power struggle with an uncertain outcome

Covid vaccines are the latest instruments of power in geopolitics, as the competition between China and India shows, Le Monde observes:

“The two Asian giants are vying with each other to supply their neighbours who lack vaccine resources: China with its two vaccines not yet approved by the WHO, India with its extensive pharmaceutical production - let's not forget that it manufactures Astrazeneca's vaccine, for example. The geopolitics here are familiar. Burma is benefiting from donations from both giants, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan have received vaccines from India, and the Cambodians are only being vaccinated with Chinese products. … It's far too early to say who are the winners and who are the losers. One of the lessons to be learned after a year of pandemic is that yesterday's winners can be tomorrow's losers - and vice versa.”

Novinky.cz (CZ) /

No vaccinations without serum

The Czech government is also considering buying Sputnik V, which Novinky.cz finds understandable:

“Licences can be obtained from Russia. Sputnik V could be approved by the Czech authorities and then produced in our country. And those who want to be vaccinated could decide for themselves which vaccine to have. After all, you can't vaccinate without serum. In this case, geopolitics should take a back seat. If a substance is needed, you get it from where it is available. That makes sense.”

Index.hr (HR) /

Sidestep incompetent EU bureaucracy

Croatia should know how to help itself, Index.hr complains:

“If Brussels can't help - and it obviously isn't able to organise a vaccine for us - we shouldn't wait for the politicians to have their say but organise our own vaccine purchases on the free market. That's unfair? Many things are unfair in international relations. ... And it must be clearly stated: international relations are governed by interests. If it's in the national interest to secure vaccines quickly and in large quantities - which exceeds the realm of abstract European interest - then one must act accordingly. That's what the others are doing. They just disguise their interest as public interest. In short: secure the vaccine, with or without EU.”

Krónika (RO) /

The right response to bottlenecks

Given the delivery problems within the EU Krónika sees Budapest's decision to buy the Russian vaccine as entirely understandable:

“The Hungarian leadership has at least made an effort to find a solution to the crisis situation. ... The squeamish public that is now crying 'Putinism' could just as well level the same accusations at German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After all, last week she announced that the German health authorities were willing to help the Russian manufacturer secure EU approval. This is a sign that Germany, which is considered the real leader of the EU, has also come to the conclusion that the problems with the EU's joint vaccine procurement strategy are serious and that new suppliers are now needed.”

Habertürk (TR) /

Safety before effectiveness

Turkey's vaccination programme relies on the vaccine made by Chinese manufacturer Sinovac. In Habertürk, professor of medicine Temel Yılmaz defends this approach - even though other vaccines have proved more effective:

“The Sinovac vaccine is based on a technology using inactive viruses - the world's oldest vaccination method. The idea is to use dead viruses to enable the immune system to recognise the virus and produce antibodies. Because inactive virus particles are used, the method is very reliable. In contrast, the vaccines produced by Biontech/Pfizer and Moderna use RNA-based technology (mRNA). ... This method is new and has never been used anywhere in the world until now. ... Their long-term effects on the immune system are unknown.”

Denik (CZ) /

The price is the only pro

Denik sees little point in Hungary's vaccination strategy also involving the use of Russian vaccines:

“The vaccines ordered by the EU will likely arrive in Hungary much faster than the Russian ones. … Even in Russia the vaccine is scarce. Despite the fact that it was approved last summer only 0.69 percent of the population have been vaccinated - half as many as in the Czech Republic or Hungary. In countries like Egypt, Brazil, India or Kazakhstan, with which Russia has signed major delivery agreements, vaccination has not even started yet in some cases. The only thing that speaks in favour of Hungary's decision is that the Russian vaccine is significantly cheaper than that of Pfizer/Biontech for example.”

Népszava (HU) /

A danger to freedom of travel

The use of Chinese vaccines could lead to considerable undesirable side-effects, warns Népszava:

“If a vaccination passport really is introduced [in the EU] and Hungary authorises the use of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine due to political pressure but the European Medicines Agency does not, there is a risk that Hungary will be assigned to the so-called red zone category, meaning that other EU countries could impose a ban on Hungarian citizens entering the country. Entering Hungary from other member states could also be banned - which is potentially an even bigger problem, especially for the tourism industry.”