Morning Brief

G-7 Scrambles for Global Vaccine Plan

After months of warnings, the group of wealthy nations has begun to put forward solutions to the lopsided distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

US President Joe Biden holds a face mask as he participates in a CNN town hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 16, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden holds a face mask as he participates in a CNN town hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 16, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden joins today’s G-7 meeting, the United States moves closer to Iran negotiations, and Japan identifies a new COVID-19 variant.

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G-7 Meets on Global Vaccine Rollout

U.S. President Joe Biden makes his first appearance at a meeting of the G-7 today, as the economic heavyweights gather—virtually—to discuss the global coronavirus pandemic and come up with a plan to distribute vaccines equitably.

It’s a case of better late than never for the seven wealthy nations, all of which have begun vaccinating their own populations after cutting deals directly with manufacturers (Japan was the last to begin, having started vaccinations on Wednesday).

It’s a busy day for transnational chatter, as four G-7 leaders then join the Munich Security Conference Special Edition later in the day to further address the coronavirus crisis as well as the climate emergency and the threat of terrorism.

International pressure. There’s been no lack of public pressure from other global leaders on the issue of vaccine nationalism. Writing in Foreign Policy, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the practice “is not just morally indefensible. It is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive.” On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the distribution of vaccines “wildly uneven and unfair.”

Those warnings appeared to have had some impact, as rich nations have started taking action. On Thursday, the Biden administration announced plans to commit $4 billion to the COVAX program, an initiative co-led by the WHO that aims to bring vaccines to poorer countries. After a rough start, COVAX expects to distribute roughly 460 million doses (out of a pool of 2.3 billion) by mid-2021.

Concern or competition? French President Emmanuel Macron is set to propose that the G-7 share 5 percent of its vaccine haul with poorer countries, with a particular focus on Africa, in part to head off the vaccine diplomacy of Russia and China.

The moves come as the glut of vaccines in the developed world becomes more obscene. The ONE campaign, an advocacy group, estimates that rich nations are overstocked by as many as 1 billion doses.

Calling shots. If rich countries have been acting selfishly, then drug companies haven’t exactly been saints either. German media reports on suspected profiteering revealed that the EU received a quote from Pfizer-BioNTech of roughly $64 per vaccine dose during negotiations; the price was ultimately agreed at around $19 per dose. The mRNA pioneer BioNTech, which claims it has not yet turned a profit, has also benefited from generous subsidies from both Germany and the European Union.

The rational case. A more equitable vaccine rollout shouldn’t be dismissed as a moral crusade: There are plenty of selfish reasons for rich countries to want to spread the vaccines as far as possible. As Foreign Policy Editor at Large Jonathan Tepperman argues, everything from an increased risk of virus mutation, drastic economic damage, and growing security threats should be enough to demand action.

“While focusing exclusively on your own people during a crisis is tempting, leaders of rich countries need to realize that, even seen through that narrow lens, poorer countries demand their attention and their help—because without it, Western citizens are also bound to suffer,” Tepperman writes.


What We’re Following Today

Momentum building on Iran talks. The Biden administration confirmed on Thursday that it is ready to enter talks with Iran on a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A joint statement released after a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany said that if Iran “comes back into strict compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA, the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end.”

Despite the overture, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said no talks were likely while U.S. sanctions remain in place. “Remove the cause if you fear the effect,” Zarif tweeted. Iran has pledged to limit nuclear inspections and increase uranium enrichment by next week if sanctions are not lifted.

In Foreign Policy, Michael Hirsh reports from behind the scenes on the Biden administration’s diplomatic tightrope walk between hard-liners at home and abroad.

U.K. and Canada sanction Myanmar junta leaders.
The United Kingdom and Canada have joined the United States in imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s generals following the Feb. 1 coup that has led to mass protests across the Southeast Asian nation. On Friday, the first death linked to the protests was reported after a 20-year-old woman, Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, succumbed to a bullet wound to the head sustained during last week’s demonstrations.

Japan identifies new variant. Japan has confirmed the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19 in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo. Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases said the variant appears to have originated outside the country and differed from others identified in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato has warned the public to stay vigilant. “It may be more contagious than conventional strains, and if it continues to spread domestically, it could lead to a rapid rise in cases,” he said. Writing in Foreign Policy in December, epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani provided an in-depth exploration on what mutations in the coronavirus mean for global vaccine programs.


Keep an Eye On

Election in Niger. Voters in Niger go to the polls on Sunday for a presidential runoff between ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum and former president Mahamane Ousmane. Bazoum is heavily favored to win, after beating Ousmane by 22 points in the first round and receiving the endorsements of the third and fourth place finishers.

Bazoum has pledged to continue the policies of outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou, including the battles against Islamist violence and poverty. No matter who wins, the election will mark the first time since Niger gained independence that power will change hands between two democratically-elected leaders.

Greece-Turkey tensions. Greece has protested the deployment of a Turkish research vessel in the Aegean Sea in another sign of maritime tensions amid overlapping territorial claims between the two NATO allies. Turkey maintains that its ship is only carrying out scientific research but a Greek government spokesman nonetheless denounced it “an unnecessary move which does not help positive sentiment.” Greece has invited Turkey for a fresh round of talks in March following negotiations in January, but Turkey has not yet accepted.


Odds and Ends

A 32-year-old British man was offered a chance to jump the coronavirus vaccine queue after national health records mistakenly identified him as the most obese man to have ever lived.

A clerical error classified Liam Thorp, a political editor with the Liverpool Echo, as having a height of 6.2 centimeters instead of his actual height of 6 feet 2 inches. The resulting Body Mass Index of 28,000—or 27,960 points more than the obesity threshold—put Thorp in line for a vaccine as he qualified as an at-risk adult.

Thorp eventually queried his doctor, who apologetically explained over the phone how the erroneous vaccine invitation came about. “If I had been less stunned,” Thorp wrote in the Echo, “I would have asked why no one was more concerned that a man of these remarkable dimensions was slithering around south Liverpool.”


That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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