In these difficult and crucial times, the strategic partnership with Africa has become a priority of Russia's foreign policy, declares Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister. The difficult times understandably refers to both the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's own "special military operation" in Ukraine that has shattered the global economy.
Why is Russia so quiet over its vaccine diplomacy in Africa? What have Russia-African Union relations brought to the health sector in Africa?
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) estimates that approximately 28 percent of the entire Africa's population was vaccinated over the past two years. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and a few African leaders have accused European and Western countries with advanced pharmaceutical technologies of hoarding Covid-19 vaccines.
Russia came up with Sputnik V in August 2020, less than a year after the coronavirus was declared an epidemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Sputnik V has however never been approved by the WHO primarily because of the lack of transparency from Russian laboratories. In addition to the fact that it was approved before going into the compulsory phase III clinical trials, it breached relevant international protocols and ruined its reputation from the outset.
The Sputnik V was developed by the Gamaleya Scientific Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology. It was later registered under the emergency use authorization procedure, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) website. The RDIF is Russia's sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 to make equity co-investments, primarily in Russia, alongside reputable international financial and strategic investors. The Kremlin offered this agency the full-fledged task of managing and directing all aspects of the Covid-19 vaccine production and distribution.
The RDIF has made a substantial contribution to developing and marketing Sputnik V. This first registered Covid-19 vaccine in the world was heavily promoted via a professional international marketing campaign and Russia obtained commercial contracts for close to 800 million doses of Sputnik V. Russia has only delivered 108 million doses, that is, less than 15%.
In the first place, Sputnik V has little impact in Africa. Second, no African country is manufacturing Sputnik V so far. Russia signed manufacturing agreements with no less than 23 countries to produce Sputnik V. Russia's Foreign Ministry reports indicated that the Sputnik V vaccine was registered in the following African countries: Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Nigeria, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tunisia, the Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe. Only a few countries actually started production due to delays in the supply of raw materials. Russia stayed completely outside the COVAX Facility and played no significant role in vaccine donations. Majority of African countries where Sputnik V was registered could not get supplies to purchase as promised.
Russia's drive to share Sputnik V vaccine offers a chance to raise its image and strengthen alliances in Africa. It has made some vaccine deliveries by sprinkling a few thousands, but only to its preferred countries including North Africa (Algeria Morocco and Egypt), in East Africa (Ethiopia), in Southern Africa (Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe) and West Africa (Guinea). Media reports say South Africa, a member of BRICS group, categorically rejected Sputnik V donations from Russia.
An official media release mid-February 2021 said that the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team – set up by the African Union (AU) to acquire additional vaccine doses so that Africa could attain a target immunization of 60% – received an offer of 300 million Sputnik V vaccines from the Russian Federation. It was described as a "special offer" from Russia. In the end, Russia never delivered the 300 million vaccines as contracted.
The Situation Analytical Report on Russia-Africa, compiled by 25 Russian policy experts, headed by Sergei A. Karaganov, Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and released in November 2021, revealed Russia's consistent failure in honoring its pledges over the years. "Having concluded contracts for the supply of Sputnik V to a number of African states, Russia failed to meet its contractual obligations," says the report.
Another report also compared Russia's vaccine diplomacy with Europe, China and other external countries: (https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/vaccinating-world-between-promises-and-realities_en). The report says one and a half years after the start of Covid-19 vaccines rollout, the European Union (EU) can be proud of what it has achieved to help vaccinate the world, and in particular low- and middle-income countries. The EU's record stands in contrast to China’s and Russia’s.
Based on data collected by the multilateral institutions, the EU has actually been by far the largest exporter of vaccines in the world, having dispatched 2.2 billion doses to 167 countries, twice as much vaccines as China, three times as much as the United States and 20 times as much as Russia.
The EU has not only exported and donated vaccines but also helped to develop vaccines production in Africa. In 2021, the EU with its member states and financial institutions committed over one billion euros to finance this development.
By 2040, the African Union wants 60% of the vaccines used on the continent to be manufactured in Africa. The EU fully supports this goal. This year, two factories will be installed in Rwanda and Senegal and commercial production is set to begin in 2023. Close cooperation is also ongoing with South Africa's Biovac Institute and with partners in Ghana.
The vaccine diplomacy of Russia and China can be summarized as "great expectations – broken promises." The EU has accomplished much more than China and Russia together. Building on this solid track record, the EU will continue to support access to vaccines worldwide, in particular by helping with vaccine manufacturing in Africa.
By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh
The author writes frequently on Africa, Russia and the BRICS.