Once again, history seems to be repeating itself. The United States, along with the world’s other rich and mostly Western countries, continue to be accused of hoarding medical supplies, having purchased one billion surplus vaccine doses (more than is required to vaccinate their citizens). In their absence, China—and, to a lesser extent, Russia—have rushed to take advantage of the vaccine gap in the Global South, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. A lack of leadership from Washington in sharing vaccines and their intellectual property (IP) earlier in the pandemic has allowed its geopolitical competitors to take advantage of Latin America’s desperate need to acquire scarce vaccines. Although the region represents only eight percent of the global population, it has experienced nearly one-third of all COVID-19 deaths. Historical precedent demonstrates this is not the first time that Washington’s international moral standing has been damaged during a global health crisis, due to the lack of political will to share lifesaving drugs and other vital resources. However, this time around, unlike in such past episodes, there will be concrete geopolitical consequences to Washington’s inaction.
In recent years, the U.S. has lost significant political and economic influence among its southern neighbors; without swift remedial action, its geopolitical rivals may cement such losses through their campaigns of vaccine diplomacy. To rebuild its influence in the region, Washington will need to muster the political will to increase Latin America and the Caribbean’s access to vaccines and develop a sound strategy for its own vaccine diplomacy. Already, some countries in the region have been sufficiently strong-armed by other global powers, the implications of which could be damaging for U.S. interests. As the world transitions into the next stage of the pandemic, those nations that continue to be most ravaged by COVID-19 will likely continue to remember which countries provided them with aid and succor in their time of need.
History repeats itself
In 1981, the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) were reported; the following decade was defined by a devastating global AIDS epidemic (which would eventually be recognized as a pandemic). Analogous to how Latin America and the Caribbean have borne disproportionately the burden of COVID-19, Africa was hit hardest by the AIDS epidemic. Many parallels can be drawn between the international handlings of both the COVID-19 and AIDS pandemics.
By the late 1980s, once antiretroviral therapies (ARV) were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), AIDS deaths in the U.S. began to decline immediately. Nevertheless, high levels of AIDS-related deaths in Africa continued for another decade. Africa’s enduring fight against AIDS was largely due to the cost of ARVs, which, at the time, were priced at USD $10,000 per person annually—completely out of reach for most developing countries.
Pharmaceutical companies argued that the drug’s high selling price was necessary to procure a return on its investment in the research and development (R&D) of the ARV, and that pricing the drugs at a marginal cost would maximize consumer surplus while also halting future development in the industry.
When pricing a drug, a pharmaceutical company needs to factor-in several costs: 1) the cost of R&D for drugs that never enter the market; 2) clinical trials necessary to comply with regulatory requirements; 3) and the marketing cost of promoting the new drug. While the original price of the patented ARV was USD $10,000 per patient per year, the price of the generic version, manufactured by the Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla, was only USD $1.00 per day.
During the AIDS pandemic, since many developing countries were members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), they were forbidden from importing generic pharmaceutical products because in order to maintain compliance with regulations imposed by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement. Western pharmaceutical companies—the owners of the IP rights for the medications—blocked access to generic ARV drugs out of fear that the importation of these generic alternatives would ultimately threaten their net profitization. Despite the protests of the pharmaceutical industry, India and South Africa continued to compete with and defy the U.S. and the WTO (a body in which powerful industrialized economies—those of the U.S., Europe, and Japan—wield disproportionate influence).
Drug companies eventually sued to keep lifesaving therapies out of the hands of dying AIDS-sufferers in Africa, a state of affairs that engendered a forceful reaction from international activists. After years of political pressure, Washington was forced to yield, eventually pushing for the relaxation of stringent IP protections for ARVs, making generic versions of the drugs more accessible and affordable. Despite its eventual concession, the perception that the U.S. had fought bitterly to prioritize pharmaceutical company profits over human lives in the Global South only helped bolster negative narratives surrounding the Western superpower.
However, unlike the unipolarity that characterized the 1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. is no longer the only global superpower, and the humanitarian decisions it makes now—during a new global health crisis—have the potential to be hugely consequential for the country’s influence and image. Similar to its trajectory at the height of the AIDS crisis, Washington only recently voiced its desire to back the WTO patent waiver proposal, having come under tremendous international pressure. Granted, the U.S. backed a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines much faster than it did for ARVs in the 1980s. However, having been presented with a rare opportunity to make amends for past moral missteps—by eliminating vaccine IP protections to ensure that affordable, generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines could be manufactured en masse around the world—the U.S. once again hesitated, limiting opportunities for developing nations to recover from the pandemic and again amplifying criticisms of the United States.
Backed by over 100 developing countries, India and South Africa are once again leading the current fight to eliminate IP protections. India and South Africa filed a waiver with the WTO requesting a temporary suspension of patent obligations under TRIPS (Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II) so that developing countries can access vaccines in a timely manner. The intent of this effort is to boost domestic manufacturing capacity by facilitating the widespread production of generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines, evening the odds with respect to global vaccine procurement and accessibility. The waiver would also allow developing countries to procure vaccines more expeditiously, either by producing them themselves or by streamlining the cumbersome institutional and legal requirements of importing pharmaceutical products from other countries that possess the necessary manufacturing capacity.
After months of pushback from activists and political leaders, the U.S. finally expressed its support for patent waivers, with several key Western powers (notably France and the European Union (EU)) following suit. However, Germany—a major political player in the patent waiver debate due to its powerful pharmaceutical sector—continues to oppose the move. Other European countries remain similarly split on the patent waiver proposal, reflecting the fact that any patent waiver proposal will still requires extensive negotiation (in order for it to be accepted, there must be unanimous consent among WTO members).
Political leaders and activists continue to call on the West to support the waiving of IP protections, noting that current projections anticipate that wealthy countries will be able to immunize their entire populations by the end of 2021, while developing countries will only see the same results in the next three to four years. Unlike the AIDS pandemic, COVID-19 has generated not only massive medical concerns, but also a global economic crisis: vaccination campaigns in richer countries have already allowed them to begin to rebuild their economies, while mass unemployment and lockdowns continue to strangle the economies of many developing nations. Increasing the supply and accessibility of vaccines in the developing world will undoubtedly facilitate a faster, and more equal, economic recovery. Continuing to allow the virus to spread unencumbered throughout the Global South, however, will only increase the likelihood of further viral mutations, possibly jeopardizing the efficacy of existing vaccines and further perpetuating already grave economic and medical concerns.
Washington’s initial unwillingness to cross the pharmaceutical industry has undeniably damaged the moral standing of the United States. Moreover, this decision also created a humanitarian void eagerly filled by Beijing and Moscow, as they actively seek to position themselves as the benefactors of the most COVID-19-stricken region of the world: Latin America and the Caribbean. To date, Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy have already led to economic, diplomatic, and political losses being felt by Washington; this trend, if allowed to continue, will only further limit U.S. regional influence with its neighbors to the south.
A lack of strategy and political will
In the absence of an effective vaccine diplomacy strategy from Washington, and with the perpetuation of its current nationalistic vaccine policy, some of the pharmaceutical companies that the U.S. so readily protects have pushed countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean into the waiting arms of Beijing and Moscow. While some Latin American countries have received a few vaccines from Western companies, most nations in the region continue to struggle to obtain doses. Pfizer, a U.S. pharmaceutical company, was accused of bullying Latin American countries during vaccine procurement negotiations, using its own leverage to attempt to force desperate nations to offer sovereign assets—such as their embassies—as collateral. Pfizer’s efforts resulted in a lost deal with Argentina, which has continued to grow increasingly closer to China.
While the U.S. possesses a surplus of COVID-19 vaccines, it has failed to develop an effective, far-reaching donation strategy. Only recently did the Biden administration announce its plans to ship 80 million vaccines—a small portion of its surplus supply—abroad. Of the initial 25 million doses destined to be distributed internationally, 19 million will be donated to the largely mismanaged UN-backed COVAX program, with only six million of these COVAX doses designated for Latin America and the Caribbean. In comparison, China alone has donated or sold over 165 million vaccines to Latin America, with countries like Chile and Uruguay having vaccinated 80 and 63 percent of their populations, respectively, with Chinese vaccines.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden previously donated a total of 4.2 million AstraZeneca vaccines to Canada and Mexico, the first vaccines that the U.S. had sent abroad. Still, this relatively modest donation was preceded by repeated calls from prominent Latin American leaders for President Biden to donate vaccines to U.S. allies in Latin America. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was notably rebuffed in his request for shipments of U.S. vaccines, being told by the Biden administration that it was prioritizing the vaccination of the American public (despite the fact that Washington had already bought enough vaccines to inoculate the entire U.S. population several times over). Colombia President Iván Duque of Colombia, a country that is a key regional ally, has also called for the Biden administration to aid countries in the Western Hemisphere that are struggling to procure vaccines.
By contrast, some Latin American officials have described easier negotiations, cheaper prices, and overall better terms in their successful agreements with Russia and China. Last year, for example, Beijing offered a USD $1 billion loan to Latin American nations to help finance their purchasing of Chinese-made vaccines—an offer that was well-received by recipient countries. Due to a lack of vaccine support and assurance from Washington, countries are growing closer to Beijing and Moscow, succumbing to rival geopolitical powers that do not align with the diplomatic and economic interests of the United States.
Brazil remains one of the countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite President Jair Bolsanaro’s anti-science tendencies and hawkish stance towards Beijing, however, his government has still proven susceptible to the influence of China. Earlier this year, a New York Times report brought attention to the Bolsonaro government’s arrangement to allow Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, to participate in upcoming biddings for contracts to construct Brazil’s 5G network. (Under the Trump Administration, Brazil had been one of the 50 countries to agree to the Clean Network Initiative—an agreement that committed signatories to forbidding Huawei from being involved in their 5G networks, due to national security concerns.) The announcement came after Brazil’s telecommunications minister, Fábio Faria, traveled to Beijing to meet with Huawei executives. Recounting his trip, Faria was quoted as saying that he had taken “advantage of the trip to ask for vaccines.” This development aligns with recent warnings from the U.S. Southern Command Chief Admiral Craig Faller, who claimed, during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, that China was using its vaccine leverage to push for Huawei’s integration into Latin America’s 5G networks.
In the absence of Washington, several countries have increased their engagement with China and Russia (or have at least been pressured to). Paraguay and Guyana, for instance, have been pushed by China to switch their official diplomatic recognition from Taiwan (Republic of China, or ROC) to China (People’s Republic of China, or PRC) and to increase bilateral trade relations. Colombia, historically one of Washington’s closest allies in Latin America, uncharacteristically applauded Beijing’s efforts to promote human rights at the United Nations Human Rights Council, only one week after it received half a million doses of a Chinese-made vaccine. In Mexico, Beijing and Moscow also scored points; after securing a second shipment of Chinese vaccines, Mexico announced it would expand its “strategic partnership” with China. With respect to Russia, when (AMLO) tested positive for COVID-19 in January, he received a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin, wishing his Mexican counterpart a quick recovery. Shortly thereafter, AMLO announced that Mexico would receive a shipment of 24 million Russian vaccines and that he had invited Putin to visit Mexico, which would mark the Russian leader’s first visit to the country in nearly a decade. These developments are especially relevant when considering the fact that, before President Biden announced the sharing of the U.S. supply of AstraZeneca vaccines with Mexico, he had initially rejected AMLO’s call for assistance.
In Bolivia, Putin has curried favor with President Luis Arce. President Arce’s political leanings are reminiscent of those of his predecessor, Evo Morales, who had an especially close relationship with Moscow; it would be reasonable to expect, therefore, that Arce may be similarly keen to deepen Moscow’s relationship with La Paz. After donating a large supply of vaccines to Bolivia, Putin sought out Arce to discuss the possible revival of several key Russian projects in the country: among them, the reactivation of a suspended nuclear power plant project, Russian development of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, and investments in the country’s extensive lithium deposits (lithium being a mineral key to the global transition to clean energy, as it is a vital component in the production of high capacity batteries in both civilian and military hardware). In 2019, Russian businesses were beaten by other firms in the rush to invest in Bolivia’s nascent lithium industry; however, Arce has recently announced plans for new lithium projects that have received interest from both Russian and American companies.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Russia has continued to sign vaccine deals in an effort to increase its influence. Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has primarily been a soft power push, unlike China’s more brazen “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Nevertheless, it represents a re-establishment of a foothold in the region that Russia (and its predecessor, the USSR) has not boasted since the Cold War.
While some countries, like Mexico and Bolivia, appear genuinely interested in deepening their ties with U.S. geopolitical rivals, it is widely recognized that most other nations of Latin America and the Caribbean are being squeezed politically by vaccines. If Latin America is not offered a practical alternative, it will likely continue to conduct business with Moscow and Beijing, thus incurring more debts of gratitude to global powerhouses eager to expand their economic and political influence through vaccine diplomacy.
A forward-thinking strategy
To this point, the U.S. has been significantly outpaced by China and Russia when it comes to building and strengthening relations with its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors. The dynamic surrounding COVID-19 vaccine distribution is evocative of another era of recent history when the U.S. abandoned the suffering of the developing world for the sake of profit-maximizing pharmaceutical companies. With Latin America and the Caribbean being the region hardest hit in the world by the COVID-19 pandemic—much as Africa was at the height of the AIDS pandemic—the U.S. is only undermining its moral standing and regional influence by failing to more readily extend a helping hand.
As the war against COVID-19 reaches a détente in the U.S., the Biden administration should make this issue a top priority. First, the U.S. needs to aggressively push its Western partners to back the IP patent waiver at the WTO in order to push forward a patent proposal that will help increase vaccine production capacity worldwide. Doing so will demonstrate to the world that Washington has the political will to defy the wishes of the powerful pharmaceutical industry and and re-establish its leadership role among the Western powers.
Second, in order to counter its geopolitical rivals and restore its moral standing, the Biden administration will need to be more “present” in regional vaccine distribution, demonstrated through a vigorous campaign of public diplomacy. Unlike their American counterparts, Chinese and Russian diplomatic officials are always present whenever a new shipment of their vaccines enter a given country. These arrivals have frequently been met with fanfare and attention from the Latin American press—coverage that, in turn, helps to shape public opinion regarding Sino-Russian influence and elevate the political stature of the two revisionist powers among the Latin American electorate. Adopting this strategy would help convey the message that vaccines are coming from the American people, rather than from faceless multinational corporations, and help rebuild moral standing for the U.S. among Latin American and Caribbean citizenries. Public-private partnerships with these companies would allow the U.S. to obtain more accountability with respect to international vaccine distribution; previous agreements have proven successful in achieving similar public perceptions of transparency and accountability.
Finally, Washington needs to ramp up its vaccine donations to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, prioritizing the distribution of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and AstraZeneca doses for the sake of efficiency and efficacy. (Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines require expensive cold chain infrastructure for their transport, the capacity for which many regional providers lack.) A prompt, strong showing of U.S. leadership in each of these areas will undoubtedly help boost Washington’s moral standing and counter rival influences in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ezequiel Carman is an Argentine lawyer and global health and trade policy consultant. Previously, he served as a legal advisor to the Ministry of Justice of Buenos Aires, an assistant professor of international public law at the Universidad Católica Argentina, and a research assistant at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or via email at email@example.com.
Joseph Carl is a graduate of Liberty University, where he studied international relations and strategic international studies. He has worked for the U.S. Department of State and the Heritage Foundation. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.