SINGAPORE / SYDNEY / TOKYO – While the global distribution of coronavirus vaccines remains heavily skewed towards some wealthy countries, countries are making bilateral deals to temporarily “swap” additional doses that are about to expire.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in early September a sharing agreement with the United Kingdom for 4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough to fully immunize around 8% of the population of the West Indies. Australia will return the same amount later this year. He concluded a similar agreement with Singapore for 500,000 doses at the end of August.
In addition to helping curb the pandemic, such arrangements can benefit both sides – using gunfire that would otherwise be wasted, improving bilateral relations, and bringing countries closer to reopening their borders for travel.
Australia is pursuing diplomatic channels as its vaccination campaign lags behind other developed countries, with only around 40% of the population fully vaccinated. Even though months of shutdowns have weighed on its economy, cases recently hit their highest level so far. The government is looking for ways to quickly increase vaccination rates.
The United States and China, as major vaccine producers, use their supplies to compete for diplomatic influence.
Australia, which has been cautious about vaccine approval, is unlikely to give the green light to Chinese shots, which studies show are less effective than those developed by Pfizer and Moderna. And with trade tensions between the two countries still brewing, Beijing may not be a reliable partner.
Canberra is hoping that negotiating with non-superpower nations will give it quicker access to the shots it needs.
Other pairs of countries with widely varying vaccination rates have entered into similar agreements. South Korea, which has a vaccination rate of around 40%, announced in July an exchange deal with Israel, which has fully vaccinated more than 60% of its population. Thailand received fire from Bhutan in August and Brunei from Singapore in September.
Such agreements can be win-win for both parties. Israel, for example, was spared having to get rid of gunshots that were due to expire at the end of the month, and thus boosted its image among South Koreans.
Swap agreements could prove useful for countries that have not had difficulty procuring vaccines but may need more doses later to meet the demand for boosters.
Singapore has started administering third doses after immunizing over 80% of its population. The shots due to return from Australia in December “will then be more useful to us as recall shots,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said when announcing the swap deal.
Helping immunize other countries also promises to speed the resumption of cross-border travel. The more than one million Australian travelers who visited Singapore in 2019, before the pandemic, were a valuable source of tourism income.
Some countries in Africa, where immunization progress has been slow, are sharing the vaccines they have received through the COVAX facility supported by the World Health Organization. Underdeveloped transportation networks and a deep-rooted reluctance among many have hampered deployments, risking losing gunshots.
Kenya received 72,000 doses which South Sudan returned in May, fearing they might expire before they could be administered. Also that month, the Democratic Republic of the Congo redistributed most of the 1.7 million doses it had received via COVAX to countries like Ghana and Madagascar.
The hope is that the redeployment of fire will speed up progress in an area where only about 4% of the population is fully immunized.