The EU’s vaccine shortage is not just a medical emergency. With China and Russia making headway by marketing their vaccines in Central and Eastern Europe, the EU faces a geopolitical problem entirely of its own making.
As of March 15, the bloc had administered 11 doses per 100 people, compared with 33 in the United States and 39 in the United Kingdom. With a million vaccinations a day, in contrast to over 2 million in America and around 400,000 in Britain, the gap between the EU and its closest partners risks widening.
Europe’s political leadership deserves a large portion of the blame for the shortfall, from the European Commission’s handling of vaccine procurement to France’s President Emmanuel Macron and other European politicians’ casting aspersions on AstraZeneca’s work. The result? The limited supply of available vaccines, especially of AstraZeneca, often goes unused because of the public’s distrust. Two weeks ago France sent 15,000 doses to Slovakia and 15,000 to the Czech Republic, expecting that they would not be used at home. On Monday, Germany, France, and Italy suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine due to concerns over the vaccine’s potential link with blood clots — an association rejected by the World Health Organization.
Enter China and Russia. With vaccines that have undergone nothing like the scrutiny facing those made in the U.S., U.K., and EU, neither Russia nor China should be Europe’s preferred medicinal vendor. Yet Russia sold 4 million doses of its Sputnik V, which has not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), to Hungary and Slovakia, which will administer them under national-emergency authorization measures. In Slovakia, the decision has started a government crisis that might well bring down the center-right government of Igor Matovič.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán has purchased 5 million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which is also not yet approved. Under pressure from pro-Russian and pro-Chinese President Miloš Zeman, the Czech government has also contemplated these options, but the health ministry is pushing back. Meanwhile, Russia scored a win by signing a deal to produce its Sputnik V vaccine in Italy.
EU governments may feel inspired by their close non-EU neighbor Serbia, which has set a seemingly impressive example by leveraging its close relationship with Russia and China. The Serbian government bet big on Sputnik V and Sinopharm and is speeding ahead, having already administered 23 doses per 100 people.
But Serbia’s supposed successes, and China and Russia’s vaccine diplomacy more broadly, are fraught with risks. First, there are questions about safety and efficacy. True, encouraging results about Sputnik V’s effectiveness have been published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal, and its manufacturer has applied for rolling review by EMA, which could lead to the vaccine’s approval in the EU. However, Russia’s track record of misreporting, along with a general lack of transparency, urges caution, as do the regime’s hacks into American and British biomedical companies and the efforts of Russian intelligence to spread lies about the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
The effectiveness of China’s Sinopharm appears less impressive, with only a 50 percent efficacy rate in some trials. In fact, although Serbia’s vaccination rate far outstrips that of the EU thanks to the plentiful supply of Chinese and Russian vaccines, the caseload continues to grow rapidly, forcing another lockdown.
Furthermore, can China and Russia actually deliver? Oddly enough, the two countries are even farther behind in vaccinating their own populations than the EU (Russia is at five doses per 100, China is at less than four doses). That may suggest that the generous contractual commitments are detached from their actual production capacities — not unlike the case of Western vaccine manufacturers.
Alternatively, it can mean that these two governments prioritize their international influence over the health of their own populations. Finally, and most disturbingly, Beijing and Moscow might be keen to use other countries’ populations as guinea pigs in a test of vaccines that are not trusted by their own populations.
But if (and, in fact, especially if) the Russian and Chinese vaccines prove to be safe and effective, and thus beneficial for countries that have purchased them, the EU will have a problem on its hands. What will Russia and China ask in return for the goodwill generated by an early end of the pandemic? Slovakia’s deal with Russia was kept under wraps until the last possible moment. What else is being kept secret? And as Serbia peddles vaccines to Republika Srpska, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and beyond, it is likely also spreading soft power on behalf of Russia and China.
Here is the bottom line for those who want the EU to be a strong and autonomous player on the global stage: The only way to inoculate Europeans from Russian and Chinese influence is to make them not depend on favors extended by Moscow and Beijing. With their mishandling of vaccine procurement, European institutions have failed that test spectacularly.
Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at AEI.