File image: Brazil's Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, Communications Minister Fabio Faria and Indian ambassador Suresh Reddy prepare to receive two million doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccines from India at Sao Paulo International Airport, Brazil on January 22, 2021. (Image: Reuters/Amanda Perobelli)
India’s initiative to provide COVID-19 vaccines to other countries, including free doses, seems to not have gone down well with China, which is aiming for international goodwill by shipping its jabs after facing global outrage over its handling of the viral outbreak that started from Wuhan late in 2019.
The latest twist in "vaccine diplomacy’ comes amid reports of a Chinese state-backed hacking group launching a cyberattack on IT systems of Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, which provided its first dose to inoculate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The real intent of the hackers is “exfiltrating intellectual property and getting a competitive advantage over Indian pharmaceutical companies”, cyber intelligence firm Cyfirma’s Chief Executive Kumar Ritesh, formerly a top cyber official with British foreign intelligence agency MI6, was quoted as saying in a Reuters report. Goldman Sachs-backed Cyfirma is based in Singapore and Tokyo.
Earlier China’s state media tried to discredit Indian vaccine makers even though these companies provide 60 percent of the jabs to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.
By March 9, India had supplied vaccines to 63 countries and to the United Nations health workers. Of the 57.9 million doses, 13 percent are grants, 58 percent are commercial sales and 28 percent are under the COVAX facility, an initiative
of the World Health Organisation to provide fair and equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines to every country in the world.
“Providing free vaccines to friendly countries is as much a calculated move by India, as it is a noble gesture,” says Dr Uttar Sahasrabuddhe, Professor and Head at the Department of Civics & Politics, University of Mumbai.
“India's vaccine diplomacy stands out against the vaccine nationalism of some other rich countries. It has already earned India a lot of goodwill among the people of these countries.”
China, too, has donated or is donating jabs to 69 developing countries and is exporting vaccines to 43 countries, Wang Yi, China’s State Councilor and foreign minister, said during a press meet on March 7.
“Forty-three million shots of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinopharm have been administrated worldwide, with 34 million in China,” The Global Times reported, citing China Central Television on February 20.
Some of the countries that have received vaccine aid from China include Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Belarus. Serbia, Hungary, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Morocco, Senegal, UAE and Turkey too have got Chinese jabs.
“China opposes ‘vaccine nationalism’. We reject any ‘vaccine divide’ or any attempt to politicise vaccine cooperation,” said Wang, responding to a question on vaccine diplomacy. “We hope that all capable countries will do what they can to provide vaccines to countries in need, especially developing countries, so that people all over the world will have access to affordable vaccines, vaccines that truly benefit the people.”
China is indeed competing with India on vaccine diplomacy, says Sahasrabuddhe. “However, it is officially unclear how many doses it has donated free and how many are being sold to various countries in the world. But it has its own way of winning confidence among countries.”
She said China had managed to get the "holy and halal" certification from the Indonesian Ulema Council for its vaccine produced by Sinovac Biotech.
“Questions over the source of the outbreak of the pandemic had damaged China's image and its international stature to a certain extent, during the peak of the pandemic. However, vaccine diplomacy seems to be working with China too and it may be able to win the confidence and goodwill of many Asian and African countries again,” she said.