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Vaccine Diplomacy: An End to the Acute Stage of the Pandemic is Within Reach Next Year

A COVAX initiative hosted by Prime Minister Suga on June 2 raised an incredible $ 2.4 billion USD for the purpose of ensuring equitable access globally to COVID-19 vaccines.

Duncan Bartlett

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Manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines.

It may be possible to end the global pandemic more quickly and cheaply than many people realize.

By the middle of next year, the acute phase could be completely over, provided vaccines are rolled out fairly. 

The key to success – according to the World Bank Policy Research Paper titled “How to End the COVID-19 Pandemic by March 2022”  – is to give at least one vaccine to about 60% of the population in every country.

The paper says that the cost of the response, although expensive, will prove much less than allowing infections to increase, which would prevent a global economic recovery.

Central Tokyo, also deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan’s New Approach

Even though the vaccine rollout has been relatively slow in Japan, the government is now developing a more sophisticated response to COVID-19, which is both international and long term.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is taking a leading role in an initiative to protect everyone in the world from the virus, including people in developing countries.

This week, Mr Suga led an online event, hosted in Tokyo, designed to spur countries into pledging financial support for the global vaccine alliance, which is led by Gavi, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

The conference was co-hosted by Gavi Board Chair, José Manuel Barroso.

Mr Suga said: “I would like to deliver hope in the form of vaccines to as many people as possible in the world equally, as early as possible.” 

Mr. Suga added: “To respond to the needs of the world, Japan as a developed country will speed the pace of sharing safe and effective vaccines.”

Afterwards, the summit’s organizers Tweeted that the event raised an incredible $ 2.4 billion USD from nearly 40 donor governments, the private sector, and foundations, exceeding the funding target and bringing the total pledged to the COVAX AMC to $ 9.6 billion USD to date!”

Mr Suga said Japan would give $800 million USD to the COVAX facility, in addition to the $200 million USD Japan has already provided for the scheme, and use COVAX to provide 30 million of vaccines secured by Japan to other countries and regions.

RELATED: EDITORIAL | Countries Must Share Coronavirus Vaccines — Japan Can Help Make It Happen

Indonesia is one of the potential beneficiaries under the COVAX plan.

Asian Benefits

Millions of people in Asia are already starting to benefit, including those in countries which are at the lower end of the development scale. 

This week, Pakistan received 100,000 doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine through the COVAX initiative, and Bangladesh is expected to receive 68 million doses soon. India and Indonesia are also eligible for the program. 

At the Tokyo summit, Mexico and Poland joined as new donors to the scheme. Other countries pledging additional contributions included Spain and Australia.

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “This is a global pandemic. it doesn’t know politics, it doesn’t know borders and none of us will be truly safe until all of us are safe.”

Corporations including Toyota Tsusho – a sogo shosha trading company linked to Toyota – also announced contributions at Wednesday’s conference.

Prime Minister Suga is expected to continue to take the lead on the COVAX vaccine issue when he joins other G7 leaders, including President Joe Biden, at a summit hosted by the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson in Cornwall later this month.

Vaccine rollout at Tokyo’s mass vaccination center in Otemachi.

Deflecting Criticism

The U.S. and the UK are far ahead of Japan in terms of the percentage of their populations who have received vaccine doses, and this has led to frustration in Japan, with much criticism directed at the government.

However, the delays to the vaccine rollout in Japan do not primarily reflect a funding shortage. The program has been slow due to a lengthy approval process for vaccines, administrative inefficiency and a lack of coordination among the medical profession. 

Mr Suga therefore has promised to address the problems in Japan at the same time as supporting the international COVAX initiative. He says that by the summer, one million vaccine doses will be delivered daily in Japan, double the current level. Military doctors and nurses have been called in to help to administer jabs. 

The government says that as the roll-out speeds up and Japanese companies produce more supplies, there will be enough vaccine supplies to cover domestic needs and to export globally.

At the COVAX conference, Mr Suga pledged: “In the future, we will supply the vaccines to the world.” 

RELATED: Shinzo Abe Vows to Share Coronavirus Vaccine to the World, As Japan Lifts State of Emergency

China has used its vaccine to secure favorable influence in countries in Africa and in Latin America, among others.

China’s Vaccine Diplomacy

The major rival to Japan and the U.S. in terms of vaccine diplomacy is China.

Despite initial scepticism about their safety and efficacy, Chinese vaccines, such as Sinopharm, are now winning approval from the World Health Organization for use in many countries and are being included in the COVAX initiative.

As well as supporting COVAX, China is particularly keen to supply its friends, such as Pakistan. China has shipped about 265 million COVID vaccine doses, more than all other nations combined, with commitments to provide 440 million more, according to science information and analytics company Airfinity.

President Xi Jinping also said recently that China will provide an additional $3 billion USD in international aid over the next three years to support pandemic response and economic and social recovery in developing countries. 

There is no chance that Chinese vaccines will be offered in Japan, although the two countries both support COVAX. However, the initiative gives Japan an opportunity to collaborate with another regional rival, South Korea. 

South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum attended the online event hosted by Mr Suga and said: “Vaccines with proven safety and efficacy should be produced in sufficient scale and rapidly distributed worldwide, including to countries that are vulnerable to health impacts.”

Mr Kim said this would happen “in the right time when we have the right conditions, as we currently face the difficult challenges of variants that are spreading and delays in vaccine supplies.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson will host the June G7 leaders conference in the U.K. (Photo: Geoff Pugh/Pool via REUTERS)

G7 Opportunity

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In will be travelling to the UK to join the G7 leaders at their summit in Cornwall later this month. 

Although not a G7 member, South Korea has been offered observer status at the meeting, and this provides opportunities for conversations between representatives South Korea, Japan and the United States on healthcare and other issues.

Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, says: “Global access to vaccines is not happening fast enough, and it’s in everyone’s interest that we get there sooner. The longer it takes to protect people most at risk, such as health and social care workers and vulnerable people, the longer the virus will continue to circulate and the greater the risk that new and potentially more dangerous variants will emerge.”

According to Mr Berkley “only governments have the power to speed things up now, by turning their commitment to COVAX into action.”

Mr Suga has decided that it’s time to put Japan’s foot firmly on the vaccine accelerator.

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Author: Duncan Bartlett

Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to JAPAN Forward and is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London. He is currently teaching geopolitics and diplomacy to students enrolled on the Economist’s Executive Education course, the New Global Order. 

Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to Japan Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London. He also runs the news portal Japan Story, which contains articles, videos and podcasts. He is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a Research Associate at SOAS China Institute, University of London. He formerly worked in Tokyo for the BBC.