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Latin America turns to China and Russia for COVID-19 vaccines

Several countries in the Americas have received their first vaccine shipments over the past few weeks — not from the regional superpower or from Western pharmaceutical giants, but from China, Russia, and in some cases India.

Why it matters: North and South America have been battered by the pandemic and recorded several of the world’s highest death tolls. Few countries other than the U.S. have the capacity to manufacture vaccines at scale, and most lack the resources to buy their way to the front of the line for imports. That’s led to a scramble for whatever supply is available.

  • Only Chile (17%), the U.S. (15%), Barbados (12%), Canada (3%), Brazil (3%), Argentina (2%), Mexico (2%), Costa Rica (1%) and Panama have managed to provide a first dose to at least 1% of their populations.

Driving the news: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — who has railed against vaccine “hoarding” by rich countries — was expected to ask President Biden in their virtual meeting Monday to share a portion of the U.S. vaccine supply with Mexico.

  • Ahead of the meeting, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the answer would be “no,” at least until all Americans have access.
  • Canada, which has purchased more doses relative to its population than any other country but struggled to obtain them due to limited manufacturing capacity, has received a similar response from Washington.

The state of play: Other global powers have begun shipping doses to the region. At least 10 Latin American countries have obtained Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine or expect to soon, while 10 more are expecting doses from China’s Sinovac or Sinopharm.

  • Argentina was one of the first countries in the region to begin its rollout, using Sputnik V, while Chile has climbed to the top of the vaccination charts using a combination of Pfizer and Sinovac.
  • Meanwhile, most of the doses that have reached the Caribbean thus far have come from India, which has become a global player in vaccine distribution due to its massive manufacturing capacity. New Delhi has donated Oxford/AstraZeneca doses to countries including Barbados and Dominica.
  • Israel got into the “vaccine diplomacy” game on a small scale, sending 5,000 doses each to friendly governments in Guatemala and Honduras.
  • Worth noting: At least eight countries have signed bilateral deals with Pfizer or AstraZeneca. Cuba, meanwhile, is banking on a homegrown vaccine.

Zoom in: While Bolivia was negotiating the purchase of 5.2 million Sputnik doses in December, at $10 per shot, the government was also in talks with Western pharmaceutical companies who “told us developing countries that we had to wait until June,” Trade Minister Benjamin Blanco told Reuters.

  • Bolivian President Luis Arce pumped his fist on the tarmac when the first Sputnik shipment arrived. Around the same time, he spoke with Vladimir Putin about potential joint energy projects.
  • But while Psaki warned last month that Russia and China could use vaccines to build leverage over other countries, it’s Pfizer that has been accused of bullying Latin American countries during negotiations.

Vaccines arriving from Russia and China are often received with great fanfare, with political leaders and TV cameras on hand.

Yes, but: The shipments are often quite small.

  • Russia has thus far provided Bolivia with 20,000 doses and Paraguay 4,000, enough to cover a fraction of 1% of their populations.
  • Both Russia and China will face manufacturing capacity challenges to cover their own populations, let alone send doses all over the world.

However, deals to produce the Sinovac and Sputnik vaccines in Brazil and Sputnik in Argentina should boost supplies. Crucially, the vaccines don't require ultra-cold temperatures.

  • Questions about efficacy remain, though, particularly for the Chinese vaccines. A trial in Brazil found that the Sinovac vaccine was just 50.4% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, though it was more effective at preventing severe cases.
  • And while both countries are clearly winning diplomatic points, multiple polls have found that many in Latin America would be less willing to take a Russian or Chinese vaccine than a Western alternative.

What to watch: By this summer, the U.S. and other rich countries will likely be prepared to share doses internationally, significantly shifting the vaccine diplomacy picture.

  • The global COVAX initiative, which is crucial to the vaccination outlook in the Americas, will also start to ramp up distribution this month. It should quickly surpass Russia and China as the largest source of vaccines for several countries.

The bottom line: Moscow and Beijing may have gained lasting goodwill and influence in the region by stepping in when vaccines were at their most scarce.

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