When President Joe Biden announced in June that the United States would donate additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, he claimed it was a humanitarian gesture. “We are sharing these doses not to secure favors or extract concessions. We are sharing these vaccines to save lives and to lead the world in bringing an end to the pandemic, with the power of our example and with our values,” Biden said.
This was a bald-faced lie. The United States has repeatedly traded vaccines for political influence while upholding a system of vaccine apartheid that guarantees vaccine scarcity in the Global South and reinforces US empire.
Members of the foreign policy establishment have leapt to Biden’s defense, pointing out that China has also used its vaccines as a bargaining chip. They insist that Biden’s “vaccine diplomacy” has been a force for good. But it is Washington, its European allies, and US pharmaceutical companies — not China — that have blocked most of the world from obtaining vaccines.
The US government has refused to share the vaccine recipes that it paid Moderna and Pfizer billions to develop. The European Union has opposed a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccine technologies, preventing other countries from producing their own vaccine doses. (The Biden administration says it supports such a waiver, but has failed to use its considerable influence to pressure the EU to come to the table.)
And while Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson initially sold 90 percent of their vaccines to rich countries and subsequently lobbied for moneymaking booster shots, Moderna outdid them by charging poor countries twice what it charges rich countries for vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna raked in record profits, but only 1 percent of vaccine doses have been administered in poor countries, leaving little prospect of vaccinating the world before 2025.
The New Cold War’s Vaccine Front
The United States’ near monopoly on mRNA vaccines gives it enormous leverage in negotiations with foreign governments. And it has not been shy about using that power.
At last year’s meetings of the Quad — a new anti-China military alliance between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia — the countries collectively pledged to produce 1 billion vaccines and spend nearly $4 billion on vaccination in Asia to undercut China. When three US senators visited Taiwan in June, they committed to sending 750,000 doses to Taiwan in order to reduce its reliance on Beijing. Biden separately committed to sharing existing doses with countries in Asia, but Cambodia and Myanmar were excluded from the program because their governments favor China.
The US has also blocked vaccines from reaching countries whose governments it has actively worked to topple, such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has falsely claimed the United States “won’t trade shots in arms for political favors. This is about saving lives.”
To be sure, China has also used its vaccines for geopolitical ends. Last year, Beijing donated vaccines to Algeria in exchange for a promise that the country would soften its stance on human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. China has also tried to force countries to cut ties with Taiwan in exchange for vaccine access.
But there are two important distinctions between American and Chinese efforts to use vaccines to bend other countries to their will. First, US pharmaceutical companies, not the Communist Party of China, have imposed a system of vaccine apartheid through international institutions such as the World Trade Organization. Second, mRNA vaccines are significantly more effective than China’s viral vector vaccines, meaning that Biden could end the pandemic if he chose to, whereas Xi Jinping could not.
Vaccine Apartheid and US Empire
Vaccine apartheid has bolstered the United States’ mythical role as the “indispensable nation” upon which the Global South must depend for economic development and security. By maintaining the precarity of poor countries, the United States ensures that it can keep them under its thumb.
Consider the actions of US-dominated international financial institutions during the pandemic. The World Bank and the IMF have ignored calls for a debt jubilee that would free up public resources for vaccinations. Meanwhile, nearly half of all jobs in Africa are at risk of being lost as a result of the pandemic and its concomitant economic shocks.
After significant outcry from world leaders, the World Bank and the IMF agreed to defer poor countries’ debt payments. But deferred debt payments still eat into government budgets and still leave countries at the United States’ mercy. Washington has a long history of wielding countries’ debts against them, using the World Bank and the IMF to force debtor nations to enact austerity measures and reduce trade barriers to US firms. Post-pandemic structural adjustment programs are likely to be just as swift and merciless.
Another way that vaccine apartheid buttresses US empire is by strengthening Big Pharma’s stranglehold on the global biotechnology industry. mRNA vaccines are a significant scientific breakthrough, with the potential to eradicate diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. If Pfizer and Moderna were to partner with firms in other countries to mainstream these technologies, they could potentially transform medicine by building out advanced manufacturing hubs throughout the world.
But mRNA technologies also have military applications. The Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and the White House have all independently identified military applications of biotech as a top strategic priority in the cold war with China. The United States is well ahead of China in many subfields of biotech — unlike in other emerging areas like machine learning and green tech — making it all the more important to policymakers that the United States maintains its advantage. By keeping a viselike grip over the intellectual property rights to mRNA therapies, Big Pharma prevents other countries from replicating its breakthroughs and guarantees exclusive access for the US military.
Nevertheless, the bipartisan foreign policy consensus maintains that US “vaccine diplomacy” is more righteous than Chinese coercion. It declares — despite the emergence of the debilitating Delta and Omicron variants, both the result of vaccine apartheid — that the US is the rightful ruler of the world.
But “vaccine diplomacy” is nothing more than doublespeak. The reality is that Washington has exacerbated the pandemic by jealously guarding its power. In doing so, it has prolonged a global crisis and killed scores of people, all to reinforce US empire.