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COVID vaccines

From Australia to Thailand, vaccine swap deals help ease shortages

Nearly expired doses shipped to nations with slow rollouts

People wait in line outside a COVID-19 vaccination center at Sydney Olympic Park. Vaccines from the U.K. that had been at risk of expiring have been put to use in Australia.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE/SYDNEY/TOKYO -- As global distribution of coronavirus vaccines remains heavily tilted toward certain wealthy nations, countries are striking bilateral deals to temporarily "swap" extra doses that are close to expiring.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a sharing deal with the U.K. in early September for 4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough to fully vaccinate about 8% of the population Down Under. Australia will send the same amount back later this year. It reached a similar agreement with Singapore for 500,000 doses in late August.

Beyond helping to rein in the pandemic, such arrangements can benefit both sides -- using up shots that would otherwise go to waste, improving bilateral relationships, and bringing countries a step closer to reopening their borders to travel.

Australia is pursuing diplomatic avenues because its vaccination campaign has lagged behind other developed countries, with only about 40% of the population fully vaccinated. Even as months of lockdowns have weighed on its economy, COVID-19 cases have recently swelled to their highest levels so far. The government is scrambling for ways to boost vaccination rates quickly.

The U.S. and China, as leading vaccine producers, are using their supplies to vie for diplomatic influence.

Australia, which has been cautious about approving vaccines, is unlikely to greenlight Chinese shots that studies suggest are less effective than those developed by Pfizer and Moderna. And with trade tensions between the two countries still simmering, Beijing may not be a reliable partner.

Canberra hopes that negotiating with non-superpower nations will enable it to access the shots it needs more quickly.

Other pairs of countries with widely varying vaccination rates have reached similar agreements. South Korea, which has a full-vaccination rate in the 40s, announced a swap deal in July with Israel, which has fully vaccinated more than 60% of its population. Thailand received shots from Bhutan in August, and Brunei from Singapore in September.

Such deals can be a win-win for both parties. Israel, for example, was saved from having to dispose of shots set to expire at the end of July and burnished its image among South Koreans in the process.

Swap deals could prove useful for countries that did not have trouble securing vaccines but may need more doses later to meet demand for boosters.

Singapore has begun administering third doses after vaccinating around 80% of its population. The shots due back from Australia in December "will have more potential use for us as booster shots then," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Facebook when the swap deal was announced.

Helping to vaccinate other countries also promises to speed up the resumption of cross-border travel. The more than 1 million travelers from Australia who visited Singapore in 2019, before the pandemic, provided a valuable source of tourism income.

Some nations in Africa, where vaccination progress has been slow, are sharing vaccines they had received through the World Health Organization-backed COVAX facility. Underdeveloped transportation networks and deep-rooted vaccine hesitancy among many people have bogged down rollouts, putting shots at risk of going to waste.

Kenya received 72,000 doses that South Sudan returned in May over concerns that they would expire before they could be administered. Around that time, the Democratic Republic of Congo had the bulk of the 1.7 million doses it had received through COVAX redistributed to countries including Ghana and Madagascar.

The hope is that redeploying shots will speed up progress in a region where only about 4% of the population is fully vaccinated.

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