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US in talks with allies to counter China's vaccine diplomacy
The United States, India, Australia and Japan are in talks to provide coronavirus vaccines to Asian nations in an effort to battle both COVID-19 and a Chinese push to extend its global influence through vaccine diplomacy.
The discussions come as wealthy nations build stockpiles of the vaccine while low- and middle-income countries struggle to obtain shipments of their own. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with counterparts from the three other nations on Feb. 18, a State Department spokesperson said in an email Thursday.
"We are deeply focused on the issue of expanding global vaccination, manufacturing, and delivery, which will all be critical to end the pandemic. These are issues the United States is regularly discussing with allies and partners to encourage additional action and find areas of collaboration," the spokesperson said.
The talks were first reported by the Financial Times on Wednesday.
China is shipping millions of doses of vaccines its scientists have developed to nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, part of a concerted campaign to leverage soft power to win influence around the globe.
A woefully underfunded vaccine distribution plan overseen by the World Health Organization and the vaccine alliance Gavi recently got a boost when President Biden said at the meeting of the Group of Seven leaders last month that the United States will kick in $4 billion, and billions more are included in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package working its way through Congress.
Health experts say wealthy nations that made big vaccine investments early in the pandemic are likely to find themselves with surplus doses that can be shipped to other nations where the need remains substantial. A report last month from the ONE Campaign found that five nations and the European Union are on track to stockpile more than 1.2 billion extra doses beyond those sufficient to cover their population.
The United States alone is headed toward stockpiling 453 million surplus doses, more than the country's population of about 330 million.
Biden has said the United States will have a sufficient number of doses to vaccinate the entire adult U.S. population by the end of May. When more doses come in, the United States may turn to its own form of vaccine diplomacy to counter China.
"Rich countries can donate the excess vaccines to poorer countries," said Gyude Moore, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and Liberia's former minister of public works. "They're going to have way more supplies that they paid for than they can use."
China has announced it will donate vaccines to 53 countries, a Chinese state-run newspaper reported. Beijing said this week it would donate 50,000 doses to Lebanon, while Uzbekistan's government signed off on a vaccine developed by Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical. Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines began going into arms in the Philippines on Monday.
The United States has not yet begun sharing vaccine doses with other nations. Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador discussed vaccine sharing in a virtual meeting Monday, though White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. would vaccinate its own citizens first.
"The administration's focus is on ensuring that every American is vaccinated, and once we accomplish that objective we're happy to discuss further steps beyond that," Psaki said.
Laura Kelly contributed reporting.