Competition and Nationalism in Vaccine Diplomacy

by Helen Ramscar

‘Vaccine diplomacy’ is becoming nasty. Last week UK, US and Canadian intelligence agencies together pointed to Russia as almost certainly behind the ongoing cyber-attacks by APT29 (‘The Dukes’/‘Cozy Bear’) on national and international organisations striving for a Covid-19 vaccine.[1] In May, Reuters reported that Iranian-linked hackers ‘Charming Kitten’ have been cyber-attacking pharmaceutical Gilead Science[2] and the FBI accused China of being behind attempts to steal from vaccine institutions.[3] These attacks are ones publicly reported; it is fair to assume they might represent the tip of an iceberg. The world needs to adjust to a new political reality with regard to vaccine diplomacy and some fresh thinking will be required. So what might we learn?         

Don’t be Frightened of Competition

‘Competition’ is beginning to sound a dirty word in the quest for a Covid-19 vaccine. It implies a zero-sum game, with a binary outcome of winners and losers and, therefore, a sense that not everyone benefits. But the likelihood is that, if successful, a small number of different vaccines may emerge from more than one country; and that they will have different properties, levels of efficacy, side-effects, and cost. So competition is not just to be expected, but actually welcomed – to help drive the speed and breadth of research, and for the accessibility and marketability of viable vaccines if and when they are developed.

The complexity of the process goes well beyond the research labs that feature in most of the current news coverage. There are the scientific institutions and pharmaceutical companies developing and testing vaccine candidates; the approving bodies assessing them; the factories needing to rapidly gear up to make millions of doses each in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practice; and all those working on securing distribution networks to reach billions of people through the mess of lockdown-disrupted cities, conflict zones, places battling natural disasters. Then even once a vaccine is in front of people in formal or makeshift clinics or home-visits worldwide, whether or not they will trust and accept it is altogether another matter.

There are lessons from sport diplomacy

Throughout the geopolitical tensions of the twentieth century, some competitions stand out as positive – such as the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan that led to ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ (乒乓外交) between the US and China in the early 1970s. Sport is an arena where officially and unofficially countries can connect over the running and cycling tracks, swimming lines, hockey pitches, fencing pistes, and so forth. Track 1.5 and 2 diplomacy are critical to supporting state-to-state level efforts. The soft power benefits of international sport is nothing new; the first international cricket game was held in 1844, the first rugby Six Nations in 1882, the modern Olympic Games in 1896, and the first football World Cup kicked off in 1930. The full impact of the Covid-19 crisis on sporting soft power diplomacy is yet to be played out with regard to the postponed Toyko Olympics Games and the UEFA Euro 2020, as well as the shuttering of amateur and professional clubs up and down countries that spot and train future stars. Yet it is possible to see some parallels between the benefits of international sporting competition and the current surge in international vaccine research.

There are great soft power benefits to national reputation in vaccines

Huge sporting events can showcase a hosting country’s infrastructure and ingenuity to deliver a blockbuster to a global audience. A lot of governments will score low in soft power rankings of their competence and effectiveness in how they have responded to this Covid-19 crisis. Britain is no exception here. But there is soft power kudos still to be won for the country or collaboration that can pull off a winning vaccine and deliver it at scale for the world’s benefit.

Britain scored gold in staging the Olympics and Paralympics Games in 2012 and, with its Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate, perhaps Britain can do so again around 2022 in the realm of vaccine diplomacy. Even if a vaccine is available in 2021, given the fiasco over distributing essential PPE in many countries, it is inconceivable that global distribution of a vaccine will be plain sailing. More realistic is to hope for results to begin around 2022 – that is, of course, if the vaccine candidate works. But if does work, for Britain, already considered an ‘aid superpower’, the soft power reputational benefit should be the primary goal. For China, given the Belt and Road Initiative has come with tough terms that some weaker countries in need have felt no choice but to accept, a vaccine China distributes may well come with political strings attached. With policy as unpredictable as it is currently under President Trump’s tenureship, the outcome of the US Presidential elections in November 2020 should better signal US policy with regard to vaccine diplomacy. And if – as we hope – many vaccines emerge in short order, then the interplay between countries who share ‘freely’ and those who do not is another layer in the complex vaccine diplomacy ahead.

Vaccine nationalism can be internationalised

While fierce competition against the virus and against the clock is healthy and needed here, there is of course the risk of it sliding into more malign behaviour that excludes and mistrusts others and leads to conflict. This week’s assessment of Russian hacking of vaccine institutes signals that a tipping point between healthy competition and darker shades of vaccine nationalism may be fast approaching. So it is imperative that world leaders set an appropriate tone that both bolsters the scientific institutions working within their countries and condemns ugly – and sanctions if criminal – behaviour pertaining to vaccine nationalism.

Governing Bodies are critical

Sport does create very tribal and national reactions, and it has not been immune from scandal from which lessons should be drawn[4], but it is still generally well-regulated at global governing levels and appeals to the understanding and interests of global audiences. Major sporting fixtures are focal points in national and international life, endorsed by royalty, celebrities, governments, corporates and NGOs. While only a small number of people can participate in person at elite level, the benefits of the game can be felt widely at individual, community and state level. Indeed, Premier League football is broadcast in 212 territories with some 4.7billion people tuning in – making it, according to the British Council, one of the UK’s most successful exports.[5]

In some respects, the current vaccine competition can be seen as similar – a relatively small number of experts involved in-person but the wider benefit potentially for billions. But the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that global health needs a politically credible, overarching body with the infrastructure and resources to set high standards, intervene and even sanction. There is no single organisation with jurisdiction and legitimacy on all aspects of a global health crisis, for the World Health Organisation has not handled this particular one well; its independence shackled by its strategic shift towards China and now facing an even bigger credibility and funding hole if the US carries out its threatened withdrawal.[6] Which begs the question in terms of global leadership in a global health emergency: if not the WHO, then who? The answer is not here yet, but it may emerge from the growing array of serious multilateral efforts.


The vaccine quest that is falling along loosely national lines in this Covid-19 pandemic is not a single sprint, to produce a winning country and its vaccine prize. Hopefully the scientific surge leads to multiple success stories against Covid-19 to meet global demand. Many will not make it through clinical trials for Covid-19 but scientific experience is cumulative. They may be key to unlocking us from a future health crisis. As the sports sector shows us, national competition and global governance are not incompatible.

[1] National Security Cyber Centre, ‘UK and allies expose Russian attacks on coronavirus vaccine development’, National Security Cyber Centre, 16 July 2020,

[2] Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing, ‘Exclusive: Iran-linked hackers recently targeted coronavirus drugmaker Gilead – sources’, Reuters, 8 May 2020,

[3] FBI National Press Office, ‘People’s Republic of China (PRC) Targeting of COVID-19 Research Organizations’, 13 May 2020,

[4] John Hoberman, ‘What the FIFA Scandal Can Teach Us About World Sport and Global Governance’, 15 June 2020, UT News,; Nagraj Gollapudi, ‘Match-fixing law will be a game-changer in India’, ESPNcricinfo, 24 June 2020,

[5] John Dubber and John Worne, ‘Playing the game: The soft power of sport’, British Council, October 2015,

[6] Helen Ramscar, China and WHO’s Health Silk Road (健康丝绸之路)’, 28 April 2020,