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Authoritarian states are using COVID vaccines to subvert democracy

Mitigating the risks of authoritarian-sourced vaccine distribution

| China
Boxes of Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac vaccine arrive in a Chinese military aircraft at an air base in Pasay, Metro Manila, on Feb. 28: Chinese vaccines have become not just tools for influence but leverage.   © Reuters

Kevin Sheives is the Associate Director and Ryan Arick is the Program Assistant at the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.

China and Russia are engaged in a diplomatic offensive to gain maximum advantage from the global distribution of their vaccines. Asia -- along with Latin America and Africa -- is poised to be a major recipient of these vaccines.

China has already supplied over 240 million doses (and counting) to at least 78 countries, while Russia has supplied 12.8 million doses to over 30 countries at a far slower rate. Regrettably, elements within these authoritarian governments have coopted these vaccine distribution pipelines to serve their regime's interests and, in some cases, favored those interests over those of recipient populations desperately in need of vaccination.

For authoritarian countries involved in global vaccine diplomacy, these tools meant to strengthen their soft power are often exploited to become sharp.

In our research over the past year assessing COVID-19's impact on democracy, we've identified four problems in vaccine diplomacy patterns from authoritarian governments: they spread outright disinformation about Western vaccines, prioritize being first over being trustworthy, target political elite networks for early access, and secure unrelated political interests in exchange for vaccines.

First, as vaccines began to be developed, authorities in Russia and China employed information manipulation strategies to sow distrust in Western vaccines.

U.S. officials alleged that Russian intelligence agencies launched online disinformation campaigns to weaken confidence in Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine, openly question the validity of clinical trials, and overemphasize the vaccine's reported side effects. A Beijing-organized propaganda network spread misinformation and disinformation on social media quickly after Pfizer reported its clinical data, while its diplomats quickly amplified these manufactured social media posts.

These disinformation networks aren't occasional gaffes or examples of officials caught off-script. They're coordinated, government-driven campaigns against proven competitor vaccines.

With authoritarian governments, it can be difficult to sort fact from fiction, and science from propaganda. Just a day after Gao Yu, the head of China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged the country's vaccines had lower than expected efficacy rates and suggested mixing doses, China's propaganda system quickly moved to shoehorn his scientific analysis into the Chinese Communist Party-preferred narrative on the vaccines. Gao's comments were censored on China's news and social media platforms, and the state tabloid Global Times spun Gao's comments as referring to "all vaccines," not China's.

Secondly, authoritarian governments prioritize speed and "being first" over following scientific and international norms that build trust in public health initiatives.

Russia launched its COVID-19 vaccine in August, named "Sputnik-V" in honor of the Soviet Union's 1957 success in deploying its Sputnik satellite to outer space before the West. The Sputnik V vaccine was launched before proper testing was completed and the Russian program attempted to steal research from Western institutions.

A health worker receives a dose of Sputnik V in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 23: the vaccine was launched before proper testing was completed.   © Getty Images

Russia's chief sovereign wealth funder of the vaccine put it best: "Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik's beeping. It's the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first."

Russia immediately distributed these untested Sputnik-V doses to its allies Guinea and Venezuela. Countries that have since purchased the Russian vaccine experienced delayed shipments in receiving their doses. Airfinity, a London-based science analytics company, estimates Russia has only supplied 12.8 million doses after an initial pledge of 605 million doses.

As noted in the article "China cannot win the great vaccine diplomacy game without vaccines" published by Nikkei Asia on Apr. 18, concerns have arisen around the efficacy and supply capacity of China's vaccines. These failings have left recipient countries frustrated and openly critical of these unexpected shortfalls.

Russia and China also have targeted elites for early access to COVID-19 vaccines. This practice is consistent with Beijing and Moscow's preference to offer privileged engagement with political elites as a mechanism for influence and leverage.

In Peru, Beijing provided early vaccine access to high-ranking government officials and their patronage networks ahead of more vulnerable populations. Leaders in the Philippines, Venezuela, and Uganda, who received early shipments of China's Sinovac vaccines, prioritized their patronage networks and security personnel over the elderly and medical professionals.

Lastly, in China's case, vaccines are bargaining chips central to transactions where political favors are expected in return for the purchase or donation of doses. Once again, public health goals are made secondary to the regime's foreign policy demands.

Paraguay's Foreign Ministry accused brokers of offering China-made vaccines in exchange for severing ties with Taiwan. China rewarded Guyana with an increased vaccine supply after Guyana withdrew from an agreement with Taiwan that would establish a new Taiwan representative's office. Brazil reversed its earlier position on allowing China's Huawei to compete in Brazil as a potential 5G telecommunications infrastructure provider, likely in exchange for access to Sinovac vaccines. China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised Malaysia access to COVID vaccines, but then immediately asked for the release of Chinese fishermen arrested for trespassing in Malaysia's maritime waters. Beijing's vaccines have become not just tools for influence, but leverage.

As countries around the world accept these authoritarian-sourced vaccines to fill gaps in global vaccine distribution, they must not trade away their democratic principles and interests in the process.

Extravagant shows of affection for these vaccines, as in Serbia, can serve as propaganda tools for authoritarian leaders back in Moscow or Beijing. Political leaders and public health experts should maintain strict demands for testing, transparency, and data-sharing.

Journalists and activists should look closely at the points of entry for China's and Russia's vaccines to uncover pressure on political elites or quid pro quo arrangements meant to secure doses. State officials should understand the lasting political risks that can accompany deals for authoritarian-sourced vaccines. Social and traditional media platforms should continue applying content moderation rules to combat disinformation peddling false narratives about well-tested vaccines.

The goal for vaccine distribution is to build public trust and defeat COVID-19, not to burnish authoritarian egos and regime interests. Without these mitigating measures, jabs to the arms around the world ultimately will be jabs to democratic practice.

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