Geopolitical COVID challenge: China and Russia providing not-fully-vetted vaccines, targeting the Middle East

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Credit: Aurich Lawson/Getty Images

China’s Sinopharm announced [September 14] that it would provide emergency doses of one of its two trial vaccines to the United Arab Emirates, prioritizing the U.S. ally over the vast majority of Chinese. China is now the sole supplier of coronavirus vaccine to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund signed a deal this week to supply India with 100 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine.

These moves have thrown Western policymakers off balance. American health-care experts say the United States should not rush out its own vaccine in response. But that leaves China and Russia as the only countries wielding this valuable diplomatic tool for potentially months to come.

The upshot is that by next year, China and Russia may have purchased significant geopolitical power by having bent the rules and rushed out their vaccines. It is also possible their vaccines may fail, at enormous human cost.

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“It’s really insane and a terrible idea,” Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said of China and Russia not waiting for the results of Phase 3 trials. “It’s staggeringly hard to comprehend.”

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But if China’s bet pays off — if its vaccines prove to be safe and effective — it could cement its lead over the West in economic recovery in 2021, while also using the vaccine as a powerful diplomatic tool.

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