America will not let China play the role of benefactor
Angela Merkel didn’t even try to hide her recent disagreement with the US government: “I believe we need the creativity and innovative power of companies.” This includes patent protection. Suspending it is not the solution to making vaccines available to more people, she said after an EU summit in Porto. The problem, she said, is not “someone is sitting on their patent.” It’s about producing a high-quality vaccine, she said. The German Chancellor thus turned against a move by President Joe Biden: in view of the supply bottlenecks in these regions of the world where the coronavirus is currently raging, he had abandoned his opposition to the temporary suspension of the patent protection.
What was remarkable was the argument the Chancellor allegedly used internally to justify her rejection during the consultations. News agencies quoted her as saying: If the patents were published, the expertise on new mRNA vaccines could be passed on to China. The People’s Republic could use this know-how more easily than developing countries, she said. Merkel thus indicated that the question of the global distribution of vaccines does not concern only the humanitarian and medical aspects, but also the geopolitical aspects.
The Democrat had no choice
So, as with other subjects, everything revolves around the positioning of America, China and Europe. In Brussels, the Biden administration is accused of tactical motives for its change of course: they may want to hide the fact that the EU is the only ruling democratic bloc that currently supplies vaccines to third countries. After months of negotiations within the World Trade Organization, what prompted Washington to support the proposal from India and South Africa? Pressure from the WHO and the United Nations? The demand of the left wing of the Democrats to abandon the national approach?
When Biden took office in January, he inherited a vaccination strategy from his predecessor Donald Trump that was based on his “America First” policy. “Operation Warp Speed,” a public-private partnership between politicians, the military and pharmaceutical companies, has been used to organize the development and production of vaccines. Among other things, export restrictions were imposed on products needed for vaccine production.
Biden’s initial priority was to get vaccines “in the arms of Americans,” as he put it. After all, the Trump administration hadn’t cared about the logistics. Thanks to the vaccination campaign, Biden has now succeeded in having a third of the American population fully immunized. 46 percent received at least one dose. The slowdown in the campaign over the past two weeks is not due to logistical reasons. On the contrary, health authorities are grappling with the fact that part of the population does not want to be vaccinated.
Biden had made it clear early on that he too would initially focus on the nationwide vaccination campaign, although he admitted the virus could only be defeated globally. The Democrat had no choice: if he had announced after taking office that he would internationalize the campaign, he would not only have violated the contractual agreements establishing “Operation Warp Speed”, but also exposed himself to attacks. arsonists of the republicans. It wasn’t until America had excess vaccine supply capacity due to the vaccine’s success that the math changed.
The pragmatism of shirt sleeves in Washington
In March, at a virtual four-way summit with Australia, India and Japan, Biden pledged, among other things, to boost vaccine production in India and improve access to vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region. Then in April, he announced plans to send up to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to India. This has not yet received approval in the United States.
Washington’s “Quad” alliance with Canberra, Delhi and Tokyo is a four-nation response to China’s growing power. The Biden administration is aware that the US national approach has the potential for a public relations disaster – and can undermine the country’s claim for global leadership. China and Russia had long launched an ambitious vaccine diplomacy. Beijing, in particular, is touting itself as a scientific superpower in the fight against the pandemic and has already exported vaccines to more than 80 countries – most of them poor. So far, Chinese vaccines have been met with skepticism in some places as companies have not released all clinical test results. Now, however, the WHO has granted emergency approval for China’s Sinopharm vaccine.
Biden’s change of focus on patent protection must be seen in this context. The slogan “America is back” also means that the president does not want to leave the role of benefactor to China. He was even prepared to break free market principles to do so. This is not the first time that capitalist America has revealed shirt-sleeved pragmatism in the crisis: Trump has also relied on elements of economy of command in the production of respirators in the meantime.
For German-American relations, this means new sources of conflict. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken has tried to play down the dispute: he said the suspension of patent protection was a way to increase vaccine production and facilitate access. But other steps are also being considered, he said.
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