The popularity of Russia’s Sputnik V is helping Chinese products establish themselves as other alternatives to Western breakthroughs. Ivana Karaskova says this undermines the EU’s approach.
Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries have been looking into using Chinese-developed COVID-19 vaccines even though China’s four vaccine makers have not applied for authorization by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Serbia has begun administering Sinopharm’s vaccine, while Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine are reported to be on the track to use Chinese vaccines as well. Sinopharm’s product is also popular among EU member states: Hungary is using it, the Czech Republic has asked Beijing for its delivery, Poland has considered it. While looking for a “silver bullet” to end their national crises, CEE governments risk opening a new window of opportunity for China to raise its influence in the region.
The official narrative that flanks the use of Chinese vaccines in the region is that vaccines know no politics. Vaccines allegedly do not pose any security risk – unlike letting Chinese vendors build 5G communication networks or Russian companies to participate in critical energy projects. In reality, the use of vaccines from China – as well as Russia – is a deeply political issue. The fact that Chinese vaccines are being used without EMA approval carries a message conducive to Beijing and Moscow: the European Union’s efforts to tame the pandemic are failing, the EMA is needlessly biased and painfully slow, Russia and China are extending a helping hand to a struggling CEE.
Comprehensive, region-wide research into debates about Chinese and Russian vaccines is scarce. A Czech study that looked at mainstream, alternative and social media was a first attempt. It revealed the Czech debate to be Russia-centric, focusing on the Sputnik V vaccine, with China’s Sinopharm and SinoVac vaccines treated more like secondary options for non-Western alternatives. Still, the analysis demonstrates that once a country considers using the Russian vaccine, it lowers the bar for using Chinese products, too. The Czech Republic, for example, ordered Sinopharm’s vaccine only days after approaching Russia about Sputnik V.
The discourse in CEE countries suggests more affinity for the Russian product than China’s offerings. Cultural proximity and historical experience with Russian (or Soviet) vaccines are probably the main reasons for this. As Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said: “Under Communism we were vaccinated with Soviet vaccines as children; and, as you can see, we’re fine.” Czech scientists have also expressed more confidence in Russian than in Chinese vaccine research. But Chinese vaccines now are regularly grouped with Sputnik V as an “alternative tandem.”