Vaccine diplomacy: Latin America turns to Russia and China to save them from crushing second wave

Vaccine diplomacy: Latin America turns to Russia and China to save them from crushing second wave

Chinese and Russian jabs form early part of vaccinations efforts as hospitals choke with Covid-19 patients

In the Brazilian jungle city of Manaus, thought to have achieved “herd immunity” during the first, crushing Covid-19 surge last year, exhausted gravediggers are once again burying the thousands of dead vertically, one on top of the other.

In Peru, much of the country returned to lockdown on Sunday, with the Andean nation’s already overwhelmed public intensive care capacity of nearly 2,000 beds — a 10-fold increase on the pre-pandemic figure — not even expected to cover half the coming demand.

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the country’s richest man, telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim, both tested positive last week. While López Obrador, 67, has regularly downplayed the pandemic and ignored calls to mask up, Slim, aged 81 and worth £40 billion, may well have been as well shielded as any of Mexico’s 128 million citizens. Both are now said to be recovering.

Across Latin America, from some of the world’s largest cities to remote indigenous communities, the pandemic’s second wave is shooting out of control. And while the United States, United Kingdom and European Union are prioritizing vaccinating their own populations, desperate governments of all political stripes here are turning to Russian and Chinese manufacturers, creating a visceral opportunity for Moscow and Beijing to spread their influence in the region through “vaccine diplomacy”.

Argentina became the first country in the region to begin applying Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, to thousands of healthcare workers, on December 29. In January, leftist President Alberto Fernández received his shot on live TV. Other countries striking deals to import the Russian vaccine include Bolivia, Venezuela, and Paraguay. This week Mexico signed a deal for 7 million doses of the Sputnik shot to be delivered by May.

Meanwhile, China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are also being rapidly hoovered up. Peru is due to receive the first of more than 30 million doses of the latter next week while Brazil has already received six million doses of the former.

The deals come despite concerns over the efficacy of some of the vaccines and the transparency of their trial data. The Sinovac shot has been reported to be just 50.4% effective, barely scraping over the 50% regulatory threshold. Nevertheless, the Sinopharm shot is said to be 80% effective and the Sputnik jab 92%, with both vaccines’ peer-reviewed results now published in The Lancet. On Wednesday Nicaragua granted regulatory approval for the jab.

There has been little public pushback against the Russian and Chinese vaccines. Juan Riera, head of hospitals in Buenos Aires province, who has himself received the Sputnik jab, said recipients were just grateful to receive their shots and see “the light at the end of the tunnel”.

“Before the pandemic, you never asked where a vaccine came from, or who manufactured it?” Dr Riera added. “You trusted in the judgement of the doctors and nurses, and I don’t think that has changed for most people now.”

Eric Farnsworth, a former career US diplomat now with the Council of the Americas, a Washington DC-based think tank, believes the West’s failure to ensure an equitable supply of vaccines to poor countries has gifted a geopolitical opening to Russia and China.

“These vaccines come with a potent message that China has been pushing in the region, and to a lesser extent Russia, that the ability of the US to deliver results is now in question,” said Farnsworth. “What is to say that the US system, and democracy generally, is the best model for emerging markets?”

Many Latin American countries are also striking deals with AstraZeneca and other Western manufacturers. But in most cases, those shots are not expected to arrive until the Autumn. Meanwhile, the ultra-cold storage required by the Pfizer vaccine makes it unsuitable for many Latin American countries, with their limited infrastructure and challenging geographies.

The region surged past half-a-million deaths last week, according to Pan-American Health Organization data, although that is thought to be a serious undercount as it only includes cases with a laboratory diagnosis. Brazil and Mexico have the world’s second and third highest death tolls, while Mexico and Peru have the highest rate of deaths per diagnosed cases, a statistic that may reflect insufficient testing as well as creaking, underfunded healthcare systems.

All three of the new, more dangerous coronavirus strains are also already present in the region. The UK and South Africa variants have, so far, only been linked to travelers from those countries. But the Brazilian strain that has laid waste to Manaus is now thought to have reached community transmission elsewhere in Latin America’s largest nation.

The effect has been particularly brutal on a region still wracked by hunger, where annual per capita healthcare spending before the pandemic averaged less than £500. After years of badly-needed growth lifted many into the middle class, Latin America’s GDP is estimated to have fallen 8% in 2020, plunging tens of millions back into poverty.

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