US, China and Russia engage in a vaccine battle in Latin America

Isobel Cockerell


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QAnon watch: Next Tuesday marks the 6-month anniversary of the Capitol insurrection in Washington D.C. On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland security released a bulletin warning of more extremist violence as Covid restrictions lift. As we have previously reported, QAnon is not going anywhere. Already, 38 congressional candidates who express support for the movement have announced they’re running for Congress in the 2022 midterms. Don’t forget, there are already two QAnon-sympathizers in Congress. On Wednesday, Colorado congresswoman and Q-follower Lauren Boebert advised her followers: “the easiest way to make the Delta variant go away is to turn off CNN.” Boebert represents Mesa County in Colorado, where case numbers are the highest in the state, and where the Delta variant is present in 90% of cases. 

Hindi fake news slips through the net: Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook are not paying enough attention to Covid-19 misinformation in Hindi, in a country where over 44% speak the language, according to India-based newsroom The Wire. Reaching over 100 million users, out of the identified 150 misleading posts about Covid-19 during the deadly second wave in April and May, less than 10 were flagged as misinformation or removed by the platform by June. Only 15 posts pointed to reliable sources. Facebook has been criticized for its lack of due diligence in monitoring of foreign-language posts in the past, perhaps most prominently when the platform failed to counter hate speech against the Rohingya in Myanmar groups in 2018. At the time, the social media giant had only two Burmese-speakers moderating content from the entire country.

In Venezuela, criminal networks are taking advantage of a thriving black market for stealing and reselling Covid vaccine doses and hawking for fake vaccines. In the western state of Lara, a health department employee was arrested on June 26 for filling vials with painkillers, antibiotics and boiling water only to sell them as Covid shots on social media. She was part of a group of four people who sold almost 2,000 “doses”, claiming them to be Sputnik or Sinopharm jabs, charging up to $150 per dose. Gangs selling stolen, unrefrigerated and expired vaccines have sprung up on WhatsApp, while oxygen tanks and the anti-viral drug Remdesivir are also being sold on the black market. 

But what about the real Sputnik and Chinese vaccines being delivered to Latin America? Let’s take a look: 


In May, a Boeing 737 emblazoned with the red, white and blue logo of the six-time Super Bowl champions, New England Patriots, touched down at San Salvador airport, packed with Covid supplies for El Salvadorans. It looked like a perfect display of American soft power, except for the fact that the plane was carrying 500,000 Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine doses. 

Apparently, the “Pats Plane” gets leased out to other clients when the team isn’t using it, and the football team found itself embroiled in the middle of a geopolitical tussle in Latin America. “#GoPats” tweeted the El Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele with a smiling face with sunglasses emoji, thanking China for its support. The Chinese ambassador assured people Beijing would “always be a friend and partner”. 

China’s delivery of vaccines to Latin America has been leagues ahead of every other country – 291 million doses to the region so far, of which El Salvador has received 2.1 million shots.

Russia has also made much of its vaccine donations in the region – on Monday, Sputnik V’s Twitter account celebrated that it had now delivered its ninth planeload of vaccines to Argentina. Meanwhile, the Argentinian president and vice-president have both been jabbed with the Russian shot. But the gloss to Russia’s vaccine diplomacy campaign appears to be wearing off, both at home and abroad. As the Delta variant grips the country, Russians are finally casting their vaccine hesitancy aside and lining up for Sputnik – which means there are fewer shots to go round. Production has proved tricky to scale up, and shipments are constantly delayed. The health minister for Guatemala has thrown in the towel, and asked for a refund on Tuesday after the government paid $80million for 8 million doses, and only received 150,000. 

Where’s the U.S. in all this? Well, Joe Biden has pledged American will deliver “an arsenal of vaccines for the world.” According to a comparison of diplomacy strategies by Univision, the U.S. could easily overtake China and Russia in vaccine handouts within six months. That may arrive too late for some. In the wake of the Patriots’ Sinovac landing in El Salvador, R. Evan Ellis, a China-Latin American expert at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, told a US-China security review panel that Beijing had taken advantage of every vaccine delivery to stage a photo-op: “The Chinese, unfortunately, have done a much better job marketing,” he said. 


Beijing is resorting to ever more extreme measures to combat rumors and theories that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. According to a report by Albert Zhang, a researcher at Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute, there’s a new Chinese-state-linked campaign aimed at labelling those who discuss lab-leak theories as anti-Asian racists. This means that Chinese diaspora communities are often caught between CCP propaganda campaigns and anti-Asian racism. “Racism is a common tactic used by the Chinese Communist Party to deflect criticisms generally on a range of foreign interference issues,” Zhang told me last night.

Every year, Russian president Vladimir Putin holds a “phone in” conversation with the public. In theory, it’s a place for him to answer questions from across the country on everything from what he eats for breakfast to the state of local roads. Wednesday’s four hour marathon edition saw him spend 30 minutes trying to convince Russians to get one of the country’s four domestically produced shots. At the same time, he urged caution on Western-made vaccines. “Thank God we haven’t had tragic situations after vaccinations like after the use of AstraZeneca or Pfizer,” he said. The Moscow Times has a summary of the highlights, while Meduza has fact-checked Putin’s claims here

And that’s it from us for this week. Thanks to Mariam Kiparoidze, Erica Hellerstein and Mary Steffenhagen who contributed to this edition.