The race for coronavirus vaccines is on across the world and South American policymakers are scrambling to catch up.
The region accounts for roughly 15% of the world’s reported Covid-19 cases, but less than 3% of the global vaccine doses administered so far, according to data collected by Oxford University.
Amid a devastating second wave, governments are looking for help abroad – creating openings for “vaccine diplomacy” in a global competition for influence, experts say.
“Latin American countries will vie for vaccines and medical supplies regardless of where they come from,” said Parsifal D’Sola, the founder and CEO of the Andres Bello Foundation, a think tank devoted to Chinese-Latin American relationships. “So far, developed nations have bought over 50% of the available vaccines, so Latin America will likely reach out to China and Russia to fill the void.”
“Odds are that China, having a massive production capability, will take advantage of the opportunity to distribute vaccines to the Global South and promote itself as a leading power that looks after the interests and well-being of the developing world,” he added.
The Coronavac, made by Chinese company Sinovac, is already part of large-scale distribution in Brazil. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines has been embraced by several countries including Argentina and Bolivia. But broadly, regional delivery of vaccines is messy and unequal with no coordinated approach, and it remains to be seen how the pandemic could shape future diplomatic relationship between South America and the rest of the world.
As Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center policy forum in Washington, told CNN, South American countries “have rarely been so disunited and unable to forge common strategies.”
Here’s where their vaccination campaigns stand for now:
The left-wing government of Alberto Fernandez was among the first in the world to secure orders of the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine.
In December, flag-carrier Aerolineas Argentinas live-tweeted a special flight to Moscow to pick up the first doses, a sign of how close the partnership with Russia is seen in Buenos Aires.
Argentina has also secured orders from other manufacturers for a total of almost 50 million doses, according to Duke University’s database of vaccine pre-purchase agreements.
All the vaccines dispensed so far have been from Russia.
Brazil has been among the most-hit in the world by the coronavirus, and its vaccine saga has turned ugly with state governors criticizing the federal government for lack of coordination, and President Jair Bolsonaro casting doubt on vaccines.
Compared to its neighbors, Brazil has strong vaccine manufacturing capabilities. However, experts say the country fell behind in the race to purchase active ingredients to produce them.
Now, the country’s best hope is the Chinese Coronavac vaccine, an ironic outcome given Bolsonaro’s signs of hostility toward China. More than 2 million doses have already been dispensed in Brasil, by far the highest number in the region.
Bolivia experienced a change in power in November when left-wing President Luis Arce replaced Jeanine Añez.
While he awaits the first COVAX doses allotted to Bolivia, Arce has been able to secure at least 20,000 Russian vaccine doses, which arrived in Bolivia on January 28.
The purchase signals closer relationships with both Russia and Argentina, where President Fernandez is a close ally of Arce’s and his predecessor Evo Morales.
Public data from Duke University show that Chile pre-purchased vaccines from Western manufacturers AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, but the greatest order was placed for China’s Coronavac. China is already Chile’s top economic partner.
Despite ordering over 90 million vaccine doses for a population of less than 20 million people, Chile’s vaccination program has yet to pick up steam. Fewer than 70,000 people have been vaccinated so far.
Colombia is the largest South American country that still has not commenced vaccinations.
President Ivan Duque responded to critics saying the country relied mostly on the COVAX mechanism and promising that vaccinations will begin on February 20.
Colombia, the United States’ closest ally in the region, did not purchase vaccines directly from either Russia but recently announced a small purchase of the Chinese-made Coronavac.
Last month, this Andean country began its vaccination program using the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Like other nations in the region, it is eagerly awaiting for the COVAX mechanism to start delivering doses.
Ecuador is holding presidential elections on Sunday. Front runner left wing candidate Andres Arauz has harshly criticized the government’s management of the crisis, and claims that if elected, he will secure millions more doses from China and Russia by the way of Argentina.
Guyana and Suriname
Neither has begun vaccinating – but the impact of the pandemic has been minor, with less than 10 thousand cases in each of them.
Both are due to receive doses through COVAX.
The only landlocked country in South America is a case study for vaccine diplomacy.
Paraguay doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Beijing, and has recognized Taiwan – which is claimed by China – as the legitimate Republic of China.
Last year, a group of lawmakers presented a motion to the Senate to switch recognition in Beijing’s favor, in hopes of receiving more medical supplies to curb the pandemic. The vote did not pass.
Paraguay has yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine, but it awaits more than 4 million doses through COVAX.
Like neighbouring Colombia, Peru hasn’t received any doses yet. Both countries expect to be among the first that will receive vaccines from COVAX, but Peru has also tapped into China’s Sinopharm vaccine to boost its arsenal.
In total, Peru is expecting over 50 million doses, in part thanks to the vaccine trials it held last year to provide precious data to manufacturers.
After Venezuela, Uruguay has the lowest number of reported Covid-19 deaths per million people in South America. The government has orders in with both Pfizer and Sinovac, while also expecting almost 2 million doses through COVAX.
One of the smallest countries in the region, Uruguay has already commenced vaccinations.
President Lacalle Pou has deplored what he called “an impressive commercial war” around the vaccines.
On paper, Venezuela is the South American country least affected by the pandemic.
However, strong doubts remain over the capacity of embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s government to effectively track cases in the country.
Maduro announced Venezuela would receive vaccines from its traditional allies Russia and China as early as October, but no vaccination campaign has been set up yet.
Maduro has also been hoping to receive the Cuban vaccine Soberana 01, which is still under development.
In January, Venezuela was blocked from joining COVAX due to lack of payments, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Cynthia Arnson's last name.