BRICS organisation and Covid-19 vaccine geopolitics

A first overview of the situation concerns the type of cooperation undertaken by these countries in their participation in the international division of scientific work.

These countries have had strong initiatives to develop vaccine technology and have substantially improved their national regulatory capacity.

By Verena Hitner, 

The debate on international geopolitical forces gains new strength in the current situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a fact that the pandemic highlighted a crisis of globalization and global governance, intensifying international disputes, while consolidating China as a global power and demonstrating to the world Russia’s remaining importance.

A first overview of the situation concerns the type of cooperation undertaken by these countries in their participation in the international division of scientific work. It is noted that even though there are divergences within the BRICS and a certain slow progress when it comes to implementing initiatives, the North-South cooperation model, fundamental in the international context of the 1990s, continues to lose importance as the predominant model in the regions in development. South-South cooperation has grown and at the same time, other forms of cooperation have appeared, including South-North cooperation, such as China’s support for Italy, and East-North cooperation, as in the shipment of Russian medical supplies to the United States.

In the international dispute for the vaccine, even though the traditional producers of science have been those who most increased their number of scientific publications in internationally indexed journals during the pandemic, Russia, India, China and, to a lesser extent, South Africa have been playing a role in the global immunization market.

These countries have had strong initiatives to develop vaccine technology and have substantially improved their national regulatory capacity.

Russia was the first country to announce the registration of a vaccine against COVID-19, in August 2020, naming it Sputnik, in reference to the first Russian space satellite, launched in 1957. Although some data from the Russian tests has not yet been made available by the Gamaleya Institute, responsible for vaccine research, in 2021, the British scientific journal The Lancet published research showing that the Russian vaccine is as effective as several Western vaccines, at 92%.

China, which is the country in the bloc with the most scientific publications on COVID-19, contacted heads of state from around the world seeking global coordination in managing the coronavirus outbreak. The country, with support from India, Russia and South Africa, has argued in international forums that the vaccine is a global public good.

Brazil, on the other hand, has preferred to adopt a posture aligned with developed countries. This posture differs from that adopted in the past together with India, at the time of the Doha Declaration (2001). The declaration recognizes the right of each country to obtain generic drugs without paying royalties charged by multinationals.

This is the first international crisis in which China is bolstering its soft power and actively assuming a global leadership role. The public health crisis is an opportunity for China to build confidence in the world, rebuild its international image and consolidate its place as a global power. In March 2020, it donated US$20m to WHO in the fight against the pandemic and in April, after the US president threatened to reduce the contribution paid to WHO, China pledged to donate another US$30m. The US contributed in 2019 US$550m/year to the WHO.

The Serum Institute of India (SII) is the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world in number of doses produced (1.5 billion doses/year, 80% are exported) and the company supplies about 20 vaccines to 165 countries at an average of US$ 0.50 per serving, one of the most affordable in the world. The Serum Institute, responsible for producing doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine imported by Brazil, delayed in March the shipment of new immunization agents to Brazil. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India informed that the delay occurred because India only started to release the doses after opening its own immunization campaign.

The agreement between India and the Brazilian Ministry of Health provides for the Serum Institute to send the country 10 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, according to Fiocruz, the public institution responsible for manufacturing the immunizing agent in Brazil. Two million doses were delivered to the country at the end of January. The current contract provides for the eight million doses to arrive in four shipments of two million each by July 2021.

The National Health Surveillance Agency of Brazil (Anvisa) decided this Friday (June 4th, 2021) to approve, conditionally and with restrictions, new requests for endorsement to import doses of vaccines against Covid Covaxin and Sputnik V. Among the conditions, is carrying out extra studies of effectiveness and delivery of new data by providers, before the distribution. Anvisa also says that the use of both vaccines can be suspended in case of new assessments by the agency or the WHO contrary to the current opinion.

Requests for the use of the Covaxin vaccine were made by the Ministry of Health and by six Brazilian states. Initially, the orders involved 20 million doses of Covaxin. However, imports equivalent to 1% of the population of the states and the country were authorized — the equivalent of 4 million doses, considering two doses.

This is the second time that the agency has met to evaluate requests for exceptional endorsement of imports from Covaxin. In March, Anvisa denied an import request for Covaxin made by the Ministry of Health of Brazil. Among the reasons was the lack of minimum data required for analysis and a certificate of good manufacturing practices.

Since January, SII’s vaccine has been used in the Brazilian vaccination campaign against COVID-19. In addition to it, the country has been using a greater quantity of Coronavac, produced by the Chinese laboratory Sinovac in partnership with the Butantan Institute. With only two immunization agents available and problems with the production of inputs, the country has been vaccinating at a slow pace

The international strength of Russia and China seems to be expressed, in the geopolitics of the vaccine, through the choice of themes dealt with in cooperation with other BRICS countries and through their soft power in the international system, which gains new contours in the search for solutions of international organizations for the current situation. In the vacuum left by the rich countries, three BRICS countries present themselves with their own immunization agents and a desire to expand their influence in the international system: Russia, China and India. For Brazil, which has already played a major role in the BRICS, it could be an opportunity to use its experience in large-scale production and immunization.

(The author is a Researcher at Universidade de Brasília – UnB. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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First published on: 07-06-2021 at 10:43 IST