The space race was the ultimate symbol of Cold War technological competition between the US and the Soviet Union. Now, imagine if that race had been a matter of life and death for millions of people around the world. Those are the stakes involved in producing and globally distributing a Covid-19 vaccine.
That unavoidably competitive endeavor will do much to determine how Covid-19 ultimately affects the balance of global power and prestige. For the incoming Joe Biden administration, it offers a strategic opportunity.
The stakes of vaccine diplomacy are coming into focus as the prospects for vaccines become clearer. Various Chinese vaccines are currently in late-stage trials. Last week, US-based Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech SE announced that their vaccine had shown 90% effectiveness in phase III trials. On Monday, another American company, Moderna Inc., announced a 94.5% effectiveness rate in an interim analysis of its vaccine.
There is, for the US and other wealthy countries, light at the end of the tunnel — the possibility that technology might suppress the pandemic sometime in 2021.
But what about the rest of the world? Many developing countries will face tremendous challenges in purchasing and delivering vaccines to their populations. There could emerge a situation in which Covid-19 has become far less menacing in most rich, advanced countries — which use their economic power to lock up early supplies of vaccine — but rages on in the so-called global south.
Making vaccines globally available is thus a humanitarian imperative. It is also an economic imperative: There will be no overall recovery if large swaths of the world are still plagued by the pandemic. And it is a geopolitical imperative, because whoever claims the lead could reap immense gains in soft power and diplomatic influence.
Beijing knows this, which is why its hackers have so aggressively targeted Western pharmaceutical companies and Covid-19 research even as its scientists labor to develop their own vaccines. Xi Jinping has announced that China will treat its vaccines as a "global public good" and pledged to lend up to $2 billion to help developing countries obtain them. Chinese firms such as Sinovac Biotech Co., CanSino Biologics Inc. and Sinopharm Group Co. are testing vaccines in the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Pakistan and other countries; they have cut deals to provide Indonesia and the Philippines, among other nations, with early access.
China is striving to rebrand itself, not as the irresponsible autocracy that started the pandemic, but as the technological superpower that ended it. It aims to extend the reach of its Health Silk Road, a part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative, throughout the developing world. And it may use the lure of vaccines for more tangible strategic purposes — to remind neighboring nations of the potential costs of tussling with Beijing in the South China Sea.
In this realm of vaccine diplomacy, China boasts some important advantages. Although most Chinese-made vaccines are relatively unsophisticated, they are also relatively easily produced, stored and distributed. And while Chinese vaccines probably can't pass regulatory muster in America or Europe, that's less of a problem in developing countries. Finally, given that Beijing appears to have significantly reduced the prevalence of Covid-19 at home (according to its own statistics), it may have somewhat greater latitude in exporting vaccines early on.
Yet Beijing faces serious challenges. It has a history of overpromising and underdelivering on seemingly magnanimous aid programs. Weaker vaccines, or those that are rushed into production, may prove less effective or more dangerous than advertised.
Xi's government could also overplay its hand by too explicitly demanding fealty or concessions in exchange for vaccines — a temptation that, soothing statements to the contrary, may be difficult for a bullying, authoritarian regime to resist.
What about the US? With the American firms' promising test results, Washington appears likely to avoid the nightmare scenario: A long period in which China has one or more working vaccines and America doesn't. And although the US government, guided by President Donald Trump's zero-sum vaccine nationalism, has mostly snubbed multilateral efforts to secure and distribute vaccines globally, that doesn't mean America is absent from the endeavor.
US-based firms have agreed to eventually deliver some of the billions of doses of vaccine that will be needed to protect populations around the world. American philanthropies, notably the Gates Foundation, are helping fund the effort.
Even so, the US has put itself in a tough spot diplomatically. It simply won't reap much geopolitical benefit from the actions of its philanthropists and pharmaceutical companies, given that Trump has so explicitly embraced a beggar-thy-neighbor approach to Covid-19. It may be true that US can't help the world until it tames its own resurgent epidemic, and that the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed will ultimately have global benefit, by easing the regulatory and financial path to vaccine development in the US But Washington will pay a geopolitical price if it doesn't also show that it can be the catalyst for collective action on the world's most pressing challenge.
The easiest step for the incoming Biden administration would be to recommit to the World Health Organization and begin fulsomely supporting the Covax Facility, a global public-private partnership that aims to discourage vaccine hoarding and deliver 2 billion doses worldwide by the end of 2021.
More ambitiously, Biden might seek to forge a coalition of advanced democracies committed to facilitating the development, equitable distribution and generous financing of vaccines. This would also involve working closely with India, which is both a key developing country and a vaccine-manufacturing powerhouse. China could be invited to join. If it agrees, fighting Covid-19 could become an area of great-power cooperation. If it refuses, it risks isolating itself.
Such a program might well pay for itself. The RAND Corporation estimates that supplying lower-income countries with Covid-19 vaccine would cost $25 billion, but that the US and other rich countries might forfeit $119 billion per year in lost productivity if the global economy struggles because Covid-19 persists in the developing world.
That's just the economic equation. The most successful US humanitarian initiative of this century, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, saved millions of lives in Africa and buoyed America's image during the George W. Bush administration. Today, leading an ambitious global vaccination program would be an investment in US influence.
It may seem crass to think of the fight against Covid-19 in terms of power politics, but that is the cold reality of a competitive world. If the incoming Biden administration is looking to restore American prestige, and save lives in the process, an invigorated vaccine diplomacy might be the place to start.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.