The Latest on Covid-19 in Southeast Asia, August 27, 2020

Vaccine development is opening a new arena for competition amid the Covid-19 pandemic. And as with so much else, Southeast Asian states face pressure to choose between competing models. Navigating the trade-offs and potential risks is already proving difficult.
At Least Three Paths to a Vaccine
Russia recently approved public distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine, dubbed Sputnik V, that has yet to undergo late-stage human trials. Despite skepticism from the scientific community at home and abroad (only 24 percent of Russian doctors said they would take the vaccine), Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte offered to inject himself with it. Duterte’s off-the-cuff remark  may or may not lead Manila to actually acquire the vaccine. But Vietnam has already committed to purchase up to 150 million doses. Vietnam is also in the early stages of developing its own vaccine.
Duke University and U.S. pharmaceutical company Arcturus have partnered with Singapore to develop another vaccine, currently in its final phase of clinical trials. Unlike the Russian effort, this private U.S. endeavor  seems more consistent with global standards of rigorous testing and strict adherence to scientific best practices. That method may be slower than Russia’s but is more likely to yield a safe result.
Several Chinese companies are in various stages of vaccine development, and so far without being accused of taking the shortcuts seen in Russia. Premier Li Keqiang recently promised China’s five Mekong neighbors priority access to any successful vaccine. The Philippines has also been offered early access, and Malaysia is in talks for the same. State-owned biopharma giant Sinovac has partnered with Indonesia’s PT Bio Farma to develop a vaccine for distribution in that country. This has raised concerns that Beijing could leverage vaccine distribution for political ends, including to blunt criticism of its actions in the South China Sea and on the Mekong River.
The Era of Vaccine Diplomacy
China appears to be at the early stages of a new period of “vaccine diplomacy” modeled on its relatively successful “mask diplomacy” earlier this year. And regional governments will be hard pressed not to make political concessions if necessary to access a vaccine. This will be especially true if it is their only option. Beijing’s mask diplomacy was so effective because it highlighted how conspicuously absent other partners, especially the United States, were in providing early assistance.
Washington seems poised to repeat those early mistakes on the vaccine front. President Donald Trump has pledged to adopt an “America First” policy when it comes to vaccination. The United States and European governments have been making large advanced orders of promising vaccine candidates, effectively boxing out developing nations who also need access. And then there is the U.S. campaign to defund the World Health Organization, which could hamper any global vaccine distribution effort. These dynamics leave states in Southeast Asia and abroad with few options except those offered by Russia and China, no matter how dangerous or politically compromising.
None of this is a foregone conclusion. Washington realized it had ceded the field to Beijing during the early months of the pandemic and American assistance has far outstripped Chinese aid in recent months. The Duke University-Arcturus program in Singapore is a promising model for vaccine development in the region. And other partners are stepping up. Australia, for instance, is making a nearly $60 million down payment to the Gavi international vaccine alliance to ensure that vulnerable populations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands have access to a vaccine.
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