America won't let China play the role of benefactor
Angela Merkel did not even try to mask her recent disagreement with the U.S. government: "I believe that 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 "that someone is sitting on their patent." It's about producing high-quality vaccine, she said. The German chancellor thus turned against a move by President Joe Biden: In view of the supply bottlenecks in those parts of the world where the coronavirus is currently raging hard, he had abandoned his opposition to the temporary suspension of patent protection.
What was remarkable was the argument the chancellor is said to have used internally to justify her rejection during the consultations. News agencies quoted her as saying: If the patents were released, expertise on the novel mRNA vaccines could flow to China. The People's Republic could use this know-how more easily than developing countries, she said. Merkel thus indicated that the issue of global vaccine distribution is not only about humanitarian and medical aspects, but also about geopolitical ones.
The Democrat had no choice
So, as in other issues, it's all about America, China and Europe's positioning. In Brussels, the Biden administration is being accused of tactical motives for its change of course: They may want to conceal the fact that the EU is the only democratic power bloc currently supplying vaccines to third countries. After months of negotiations in the World Trade Organization, what prompted Washington to support India's and South Africa's proposal? Pressure from the WHO and the United Nations? The demand from 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, was 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 the vaccines "into the arms of Americans," as he put it. After all, the Trump administration had not bothered about the logistics. Through the vaccination campaign, Biden has now succeeded in getting one-third of the American population fully vaccinated. 46 percent have received at least one dose. The fact that the campaign has slowed in the past two weeks is not due to logistical reasons. Rather, health authorities are struggling with the fact that parts of the population do not want to be vaccinated.
Biden had made it clear early on that he, too, would initially focus on the national vaccination campaign, although he admitted that 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 contractual agreements that established "Operation Warp Speed," but also exposed himself to inflammatory attacks by Republicans. It was only when America had excess vaccine supply capacity due to the success of the vaccine that the calculus changed.
Shirt-sleeved pragmatism 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 response by the four nations to China's growing power. The Biden administration is aware that America's national approach has the potential for a PR disaster - and can damage the country's global leadership claim. China and Russia had long since launched an ambitious vaccine diplomacy. Beijing, in particular, portrays itself as a scientific superpower in pandemic control and has already exported vaccines to more than 80 - mostly poor - countries. Until now, Chinese vaccines have been met with skepticism in some places because the companies did not publish all the clinical test results. Now, however, the WHO has granted emergency approval for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
Biden's change of course on patent protection must be seen in this context. The "America is back" slogan also means that the president does not want to leave the role of benefactor to China. He was even willing to break with free-market principles to do so. This is not the first time that capitalist America has revealed a shirt-sleeved pragmatism in the crisis: Trump had also relied on command-economy elements in the production of respirators in the meantime.
For German-American relations, this means new sources of conflict. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken took pains to downplay the dispute: He said that suspending patent protection was one way to increase vaccine production and facilitate access. But other steps are also being considered, he said.
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