Countries around the world are racing against each other to immunize their populations against the coronavirus and end the pandemic, which was believed to have originated from China.

Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) have paid a visit to Wuhan City, where the virus was first detected, to find out more about its origins. But it found Beijing reluctant to share data and information on how it started.

Global attention has since shifted to actual efforts to defeat the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) as nearly 2.6 million people died across the world, most of them in the United States and Brazil.

Wealthier states got an early start as the United States, United Kingdom, and Western European countries began inoculating their citizens in December.

Russia, China and India have also started their own mass vaccination drives but rivals Beijing and New Delhi are lagging behind because of their huge populations of over one billion each.

The US and UK are ahead and both have set out to finish vaccinations within a year. Israel and Western European states with smaller populations would also likely complete their vaccination programs within a year.

Poorer countries, including the Philippines, continue to struggle to get vaccines and would not likely inoculate a large number of their populations until early 2023 as global supply of vaccines have tightened.

For instance, the Philippines only started immunizing its health workers and some civilian and military personnel assigned at the defense department on March 1, the last country in Southeast Asia to roll out the vaccines.

Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has relied on donations from China and from the Covax initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) for its initial vaccination drive.

China has donated 600,000 doses from Sinovac Biotech. More than 500,000 vaccines developed by AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company, in partnership with Oxford University, were delivered almost a week after the Chinese vaccines.

The vaccine donations illustrated an emerging battlefield between Western countries and their traditional adversaries  — China and Russia — to gain greater political and economic influence on resource-rich but poor regions in the world, like Africa, the Americas and Asia.

Vaccines against the coronavirus disease have become potent weapons, too, like conventional and nuclear strategic missiles in an arms race.

If Russia had beaten the United States in the space race more than 60 years ago, it was again ahead in the development of vaccines, announcing in August its Sputnik V doses.

The Soviets failed to overrun Europe during the Cold War and crumbled in the 1990s, but its successor state, Russia, “invaded” some European capitals with hundreds of thousands of Sputnik V vaccines even if Europe’s pharmaceutical regulatory agency has not given its stamp of approval for their emergency use.

Russia is also expected to ship millions of doses to nearly 50 poor and developing countries in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

China, which has emerged as the biggest threat to the United States’ global dominance in the 21st century, has been exporting its state-owned vaccine Sinopharm and Sinovac to more than 50 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Middle East, and the tiny South Pacfic islands.

China’s vaccine exports have outpaced domestic use of the two vaccines. It has gained a foothold in Europe after Turkey signed up for Sinovac despite its lower efficacy rate compared with brands used in most European countries.

China has ambitions to make its vaccines a global brand but a huge neighbor, India, is already challenging Beijing in its own backyard.

India is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, not only against the coronavirus, supplying 60 percent of global requirements for measles BCG (tubercules) and DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus).

India’s Serum Institute was licensed to make Covishield, the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, and has committed to deliver more than 240 million doses under the Covax facility this year. AstraZeneca’s laboratory in Europe only promised to deliver nearly 100 million.

New Delhi also has an indigeneous vaccine, Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research.

India has gained an upper hand by supplying doses to its neighbors in South Asia and in Myanmar, countering China’s vaccine diplomacy in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Beijing wanted Colombo to share the cost of the third-phase trial of a Chinese vaccine, turning away Sri Lanka, which went to India for its supply. 

Indian vaccines are cheaper, easy to store and have less-known side effects, making it a popular brand in Africa and the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia.

Rival Pakistan is the only country in the South Asia region which was not given Indian vaccines. Afghanistan also received a gift of vaccines from India.

While Russia, China, and India compete with each other to supply vaccines in the same regions in the world, Western states, like the US, UK, Germany and Canada have contributed funds of more than $4 billion to buy over 330 million AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for distribution to nearly 92 countries under the Covax initiative.

The delivery of Western-funded Covax vaccines started only in March but will exceed the number of doses donated by Russia, China and India, although New Delhi was part of the initiative by WHO-Unicef.

On Feb. 28, when 600,000 vials of CoronaVac, the vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech, arrived at an air base in the capital, Duterte profusely thanked China, heaping lavish praises on Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The Chinese donation was small compared with what Covax had promised to deliver — 44 million doses. China would make more money as the Philippines planned to buy 25 million doses using public funds.

The US embassy in Manila reminded the Philippines that about $2 billion of the fund used to purchase the initial 525,200 doses of AstraZeneca came from Washington as US President Joe Biden wanted to reinstate its leadership in global affairs.

Washington will not allow Duterte’s narrative to influence the people’s perception that China was very generous in donating vaccines compared with the US.

The US has donated more than $1 billion in testing kits and medical equipment, including ventilators and personal protective equipment, around the world since the coronavirus outbreak last year.

As the race for vaccinations among countries around the world heats up, the competition among the world’s vaccine-makers will also intensify. Welcome to a newer dimension of geopolitical rivalries.