Vaccine diplomacy is at the heart of European Council President Charles Michel’s three-day trip to Rwanda and Kenya this week. While EU leaders and European citizens are understandably frustrated by the hiccups in vaccine procurement, the trap of vaccine protectionism, which the bloc appears to be in danger of falling into, would cause long-term reputational damage.
Although Michel stated that « we won’t be safe until everyone is safe » and pointed to the economic consequences of uneven vaccine distribution and inoculation, this smart diplomacy also needs to be backed up by concrete deeds and action. The first batches of COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX scheme have started to arrive in sub-Saharan Africa but without an additional push, it is unlikely that East African countries will be able to vaccinate a significant proportion of their populations by the end of this year. For example, Kenyan government hopes to have vaccinated 30% of its population by the end of June 2023, while Rwanda expects to hit the 30% figure by the end of 2021.
Despite the rhetoric from Russia and China, their vaccine diplomacy has flattered to deceive. Shipments of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine have arrived in Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and a handful of other countries, but not in large numbers. Hence, there is a real opportunity here for the EU, especially in the context of its plans to strike a « strategic partnership » with the African continent. France and Portugal have promised to send excess supplies of vaccines to African countries, and the Commission should encourage others to do the same. This is happening against the backdrop of a recent spat at the World Trade Organization (WTO) when its richer members blocked a push by over 80 developing countries on Wednesday (10 March) to waive patent rights in an effort to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations. South Africa and India renewed their bid to waive rules of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, a move that could allow generic or other manufacturers to make more vaccines.
But while their proposal was backed by dozens of largely developing countries at the WTO, it was opposed by Western countries, including Britain, Switzerland, EU nations and the United States, which have large domestic pharmaceutical industries. Western nations argue protecting intellectual property rights encouraged research and innovation and that suspending those rights would not result in a sudden surge of vaccine supply. « The vaccine race is underway as countries all over the world seek to protect their people from the coronavirus and get their economies moving, » President of the Tunisian parliament Rached Ghannouchi recently wrote. « North America has enough doses to fully vaccinate the region twice while other countries have ordered enough doses to vaccinate their populations four or five times over, which many have condemned as ‚vaccine hoarding. » In contrast, Ghannouchi warned, « Africa currently has only enough vaccinations for around a third of its population and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has warned that only 0.1% of vaccine doses administered so far have been in the world’s 50-poorest countries. »