The next frontier in the East-West rivalry lies in vaccines against the coronavirus, particularly in the Middle East, where Moscow and Beijing are striving to expand their influence since the United States has scaled back its involvement in recent years.
Foreign policy objectives are being injected into the vaccine distribution process by both the providers and the recipients of the vaccine doses. In some countries in the region, deciding which vaccine to use is only the beginning of the politics involved in getting shots into people’s arms.
With not nearly enough vaccines available, global health organizations have raised the alarm about the ability of poorer countries to obtain the treatment.
Yemen and Syria, for example, will have the cost of the preparations entirely paid by COVAX, or COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, a program set up to improve vaccine equity that was created last year by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (formerly known as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization); the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations; and the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with international agencies such as UNICEF.
Gavi announced its plan late last week to distribute more than 330 million doses to developing nations in the first half of 2021: 240 million doses of the British and Swedish Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, and 96 million doses of the same preparation manufactured in-house, under a prior contract between Gavi and AstraZeneca.
COVAX also projects having 1.2 million doses in the first quarter of 2021 of the American-manufactured Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only COVID-19 vaccine already approved by the WHO for emergency use.
“The process of delivering nearly 150 million doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines in the first quarter 2021 could begin as early as February, pending favorable regulatory outcomes and the readiness of health systems and national regulatory systems in individual participating economies,” a Gavi spokesperson told The Media Line.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is still going through the approval process, as are manufacturing licensees SK Bioscience of South Korea and the Serum Institute of India.
Yemen is planning to receive 2,316,000 doses from SK Bioscience in the first half of 2021.
Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, said that since COVAX is paying for the vaccine, Yemen will take whatever it can get.
“Yemen’s drug board usually takes whatever certification comes from abroad, so approval is a nonissue. It has nothing to do with scientific investigation; it’s a bureaucratic review of the paperwork that is submitted by the manufacturer,” he told The Media Line. “If the WHO says the vaccine is good, the Yemeni government will take it.”
Afghanistan and Syria, countries for which COVAX is completing funding the vaccine, are slated to receive a projected 3,024,000 doses and 1,020,000 doses, respectively, of the SK Bioscience vaccine in the first half of this year.
Iraq and Iran are expected to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Indian company. Baghdad is set to receive 2,018,400 doses in the first half of the year, while Tehran is scheduled for 4,216,800 doses.
While the above vaccines were all developed in Western countries, China and Russia are hard at work promoting their own vaccines, Sinopharm and Sputnik V, respectively.
Whether it’s technology, weapons or vaccines, it’s the same common denominator of goods Russia can supply. It’s important for their general image and relationship with those other countries
According to Galia Lavi, a research fellow at the Israel-China program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, China has sold and donated vaccines to MENA countries. Egypt has launched its vaccine drive using the Sinopharm vaccine, with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey greenlighting the inoculation for use.
Lavi believes that through the vaccines, Beijing is reaching for its long-term goal of increased influence in the region.
“They want to improve their image that took a hit because of the COVID-19 outbreak and their late response, and strengthen their connections with the countries of this area,” she told The Media Line. “In the future, China hopes those countries will remember who helped them and support China on issues that are important to Beijing.”
Zvi Magen, a senior fellow at INSS and a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow, describes Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine as one of it “toys for foreign policy,” used to garner favor overseas.
“Whether it’s technology, weapons or vaccines, it’s the same common denominator of goods Russia can supply,” he told The Media Line. “It’s important for their general image and relationship with those other countries.”
Like the Chinese vaccine, the Russian preparation is generally not being used in the West, highlighting the importance of MENA as a market.
“No one in the West will use it, but it could be useful in places like Iran or somewhere in Africa or the Middle East, like Syria,” Magen said.
“The rest of the world is very suspicious of Russian technologies,” he added.
Iran has approved Sputnik V for use in the Islamic Republic. This comes against the backdrop of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei prohibiting the use of US and UK vaccines due to the sanctions imposed on the country.
“Let me be clear: A few hours after Khamenei made that decision, Iran’s Red Crescent Society declared that it stopped receiving 150,000 vaccine doses from a US philanthropist,” Arash Azizi, a researcher at New York University and author of “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S. and Iran’s Global Ambitions,” told The Media Line.
“The international sanctions are a problem, but Khamenei’s self-declared policy of not accepting the main vaccines of the world has come at the price of Iranian lives and is one more sign that Iranians can fear their government does not care for their lives,” he added.
Iran started dealing with the coronavirus in February 2020, whereas the rest of the world started tackling it in March. The country has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Azizi said that there needs to be a nonpartisan body to determine the safety of the vaccines, based solely on objective scientific proof.
The NYU researcher suspects that Iran may be using the Russian vaccine either because Moscow offered it a good deal or asked it to do so as a favor to the Kremlin.
Tehran’s close bond with Moscow is part of the East-West divide, manifesting itself inside Iran.
“An important segment of the Iranian leadership has prioritized a view to the East in terms of foreign policy and wanting Iran to have a closer relationship with Russia and China,” Azizi said. “Traditionally, Iran’s economy and scientific community has been much more West-oriented.”
“Of course, prior to the 1979 revolution Iran had a lot of links to the West, and this hasn’t fundamentally changed,” he continued. “When you go to Iranian universities today, they mostly read European or American books. In fact, the Iranian Cabinet today has more US-educated cabinet ministers than most places.”
Azizi says that the East-oriented sector of society has been influenced by the close collaboration of Iran and Russia in the Syrian civil war, as the Assad regime was the main Middle Eastern power to invite Moscow to intervene on its soil.
“What this shows is that there is a desire on the part of elements in both the Iranian and the Russian leaderships to position the regimes closer together in some sort of an anti-Western axis, but these relationships are also always full of contradictions,” he said.
The author noted, for example, how Russia also has close ties to Israel and has looked the other way when Jerusalem attacked Iranian targets in Syria.
The international sanctions are a problem, but Khamenei’s self-declared policy of not accepting the main vaccines of the world has come at the price of Iranian lives and is one more sign that Iranians can fear their government does not care for their lives
Tehran is not as close to the other Eastern power, China. Beijing has made pledges to invest in Iran but has not come through with much of what it has promised.
“China has one of the world’s biggest economies. Iran is a very troubled economy under all sorts of international sanctions; this is in no way an equal relationship,” Azizi said. “Iran is more of a sideshow for China.”
This is, in part, due to Beijing’s dependence on the US economy.
“China will never prioritize its relationship with Iran over its relationship with the United States, which is much more important to it,” Azizi said.
Iraq has approved the Chinese vaccine for use, as well as Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s.
A., an Iraqi political analyst who asked that his name be withheld, said the country is not picky about who makes its vaccine.
“Pfizer has already been used and tested and the Iraqi government has opened channels with all the other vaccine options. Whoever is willing to deliver is the one we will pick,” he told The Media Line.
Iraq is also caught up in the East-West divide, with protesters in 2019 demonstrating against Iranian influence over their government. There is, of course, American influence in Baghdad as a result of the 2003 invasion.
“Russia, China, Iran is one group versus the US and the West,” A. said. “One of the main issues in Iraq is there is no Iraqi identity. It’s like the country either becomes too Iranian and you join with China and Russia because Tehran partners with them on the economy and everything else, or you become too American. I don’t think either option is good,” the analyst said.
Politics surrounding the coronavirus vaccine in Iraq is based on connections, and there is concern about malfeasance.
“I think there will be a lot of corruption involved with the vaccine; that’s where there will be black markets and a few private clinics will have it,” A. said. “It will be based on who you know and who can get you it first.
“That is what’s happening with COVID testing. You’ve got to know somebody to do the test. And there were a few private clinics, although the government said there were no private clinics to do this, which did this and made a lot of money,” he said.
A. said the same is true of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own government.
“Whenever you would go to Erbil, they would do the test and then they would tell you that they will call in two days. No one has been called. It’s basically a money-making endeavor, because Kurdistan is struggling with [paying civil servants’] salaries and everything else,” he said.
In addition, Iraq’s Ministry of Health has received criticism for paying for hotel rooms for people to quarantine in without any transparency over the cost.
“A crisis is the best time for corruption,” A. said.
The analyst also is concerned that Iraq does not have the infrastructure to keep the vaccines stored at a cool temperature on a mass scale.
“Iraq is definitely not ready for the logistics required for a vaccine campaign. How can you trust the government and the health care sector to come up with a plan to vaccinate people, keep the inoculation at the right temperature and determine who is most deserving of the shot?” he asked.