A late 19th century French dramatist, Pierre-Adrien de Courcelle, once said that “Diplomacy is the longest route between two points”. This line contains the ambiguous nature of diplomacy, the dichotomy between what could be possible, and what is actually possible, given the ties imposed by the geopolitical context. The awareness that this nature often leads to the embarkation of the “longest way” is a fundamental prerequisite for the right acknowledgment of what has been called the “diplomacy of vaccines”.
As the world engages the challenge of the largest vaccination campaign ever, new paradigms arise. In times of global pandemic, with the economic fundamentals in the balance and social security of many countries approaching the threshold of collapse, vaccines become one of the most valuable goods in the game, just like water in times of drought. At the 20th of May, 2021, more than 1.57 billion doses have been administered across 176 countries, with an average rate of 26.8 million of doses per day. The distribution, as we could easily imagine, is clearly not geographically uniformed. Within this context, it is readily inferable that producing countries play a key role in this situation. In assuming this role, however, some countries expose themselves to the dynamics of the international political arena. Although vaccines are produced namely by private pharmaceutical corporations, the development of this good has to be brought back under a sort of State patronage. This is the case, for instance, of Astrazeneca, perceived as a “British” vaccine, or the “Russian” Sputnik, which, due to his “nationality”, has been subjected to a widespread scepticism in the Western world.
As a matter of fact, within this conceptual framework it is possible to understand the behaviour of the EU with regards to the stand-by status given by the EMA – the European Medicine Agency – to the Sputnik vaccine. We would not go far from reality if we consider the extreme caution adopted by the EMA in analysing and possibly release this vaccine as a “sanitary declination” of the traditional scheme of relationships between Russia and the West. In support of this view, we might observe that Russia exported Sputnik for the 40% of the total production to countries either belonging to its traditional sphere of influence, such as CIS or former soviet countries, or with which Russia has always had good relations, such as Latin America. In the EU, the Sputnik vaccine is currently under the lenses of the EMA, which has to juggle the pressures of governments and political parties that want this vaccine to be approved, and the (traditional) distrust of a part of the Union. An interesting case is Slovakia, where the government is now on the verge of collapse for buying 200.000 doses of Sputnik, outside the agreements subscribed by the European Commission for the matter. On the other shore of the Atlantic Ocean, the new Biden Administration is facing a surplus of supply of another much debated vaccine in recent months: the “British” Astrazeneca. Notwithstanding the ups and downs of Astrazeneca in Europe, in the US this vaccine has been stored in large quantity, waiting for the green light of the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) – the supervisory authority in US. It has been said that up to 60 millions of American doses could be shared with other countries, as the FDA gives its authorization, but 4 millions of them have already been shared, in a diplomatic game. The only two countries US have been sending doses to are Canada and Mexico. The first neighbour is a traditional ally of Washington, nothing unusual so far. The doses of Astrazeneca sent to Mexico, however, represent a clear diplomatic exposure. The migratory pressure along the southern border with Mexico is indeed a crucial knot for the Biden Administration, and the current pandemic has boosted up this phenomenon. With an occasional supply of vaccines coming from the US, Biden is therefore trying to tackle this situation using vaccines as a commodity of exchange.
The news of an exchange between prisoners and vaccines went by quite unnoticed as well, but it might be an ambiguous case of diplomacy of vaccines. When an Israeli woman was released in the last week of February 2021, after days of detention for crossing illegally to Syria, the government of Israel talked about a classic straightforward prisoners swap, but the voice of a possible supply of Suptnik vaccine from Israel to Syria, in return of the release of the young woman, took place overwhelmingly. There is nothing confirming this scenario coming from the official sources, but pillars of international press have arouse this hypothesis that is strengthened by the evasive answers given in this regard by the main representatives involved, such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin.
Diplomacy has to be analysed at its top level as well, which involves the supra-national institutions concerned with the global dimension of international relations. At this apical level we cannot ignore the COVAX initiative, fostered by the UN, which aims at making two billion of doses available for the participating countries by the end of 2021, with at least 1.3 billion of doses reserved for the low- income economies.
A quick review of episodes and situation in this House, nothing that could undermine the typically diplomatic veil of official positions that hides deeper interests. The aim of this summary analysis, however, was to acknowledge how even a precious good like vaccines, the cure of a disease that has been afflicting the world for over a year, can escape the logic of common good and fall under those of geopolitical interests.