The Year Vaccines Changed (Most) of the World

In 2021, the biggest vaccination drive in global history affected everything from public health to diplomacy.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A syringe of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A syringe of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A medical assistant prepares a syringe of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in a mobile vaccination bus in Cologne, Germany, on May 6. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

2021

If Foreign Policy named a person or thing of the year, our short list for 2021 would certainly include vaccines—along with the people who created, manufactured, and distributed them in record time. Even as we worry about the new COVID-19 omicron variant, we should be grateful for the mind-boggling 8.7 billion vaccine doses that have gone into arms worldwide. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be in the battle against the pandemic without them.

What is already the biggest and fastest vaccination effort in history is still nowhere near complete, of course. Less than 8 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose—and remain dependent on supplies trickling in from wealthier countries. Current vaccines may not be as effective against new variants of the virus. And in most countries, rich and poor, another contagion is spreading: vaccine hesitancy, which (in many places) is now the principal bottleneck in the effort to stem the virus.

This year also saw the emergence of a new tool in governments’ foreign-policy arsenals: vaccine diplomacy. China and Russia saw an opportunity to extend their influence by aggressively exporting their domestically developed vaccines even as their own vaccination rates lagged—only to discover that their efforts backfired when doubts about the efficacy of Russian and Chinese jabs arose. With rich countries slow to share vaccines, it was India that emerged as the new vaccine superpower—no doubt winning new friends.

If Foreign Policy named a person or thing of the year, our short list for 2021 would certainly include vaccines—along with the people who created, manufactured, and distributed them in record time. Even as we worry about the new COVID-19 omicron variant, we should be grateful for the mind-boggling 8.7 billion vaccine doses that have gone into arms worldwide. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be in the battle against the pandemic without them.

What is already the biggest and fastest vaccination effort in history is still nowhere near complete, of course. Less than 8 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose—and remain dependent on supplies trickling in from wealthier countries. Current vaccines may not be as effective against new variants of the virus. And in most countries, rich and poor, another contagion is spreading: vaccine hesitancy, which (in many places) is now the principal bottleneck in the effort to stem the virus.

This year also saw the emergence of a new tool in governments’ foreign-policy arsenals: vaccine diplomacy. China and Russia saw an opportunity to extend their influence by aggressively exporting their domestically developed vaccines even as their own vaccination rates lagged—only to discover that their efforts backfired when doubts about the efficacy of Russian and Chinese jabs arose. With rich countries slow to share vaccines, it was India that emerged as the new vaccine superpower—no doubt winning new friends.

As 2021 draws to a close, omicron’s emergence from southern Africa is a powerful reminder that pandemics can’t be contained in one country until every part of the globe has the protection it needs.

Here are five of FP’s top reads on the vaccine rollout.


1. Why People Reject Vaccination—and How to Change Their Minds

by Jenna Clark, Dec. 18

Even countries like South Africa are now awash in vaccine supplies, but the jabs aren’t getting into arms quickly enough as the new omicron variant spreads. The culprit is vaccine hesitancy, now a widespread phenomenon in rich and poor countries alike. While the precise mix of fears, conspiracy theories, and just plain laziness is different in every country, it’s clear the big pandemic challenge of 2022 will be to convince everyone to get their shots. Behavioral researcher Jenna Clark digs into the mix of culture and psychology behind anti-vaccination sentiment—and looks at how it might be overcome.


2. India Is Carrying the Burden of Vaccinating the World

by Anchal Vohra, Oct. 5

In the global race to get shots into arms, rich countries were stingy and slow to donate vaccine supplies to the rest of the world. Russia and China sent vaccines by the bundle—but encountered backlash when doubts about their vaccines’ efficacy multiplied. Instead, India has emerged as the new vaccine superpower, no doubt laying the basis for future relations with grateful nations around the world.


A shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines arrives at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 9.

A shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines arrives at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 9. Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

3. With Sputnik V, Russia Shot Itself in the Foot

by Samuel Ramani, Jun. 24

Russia’s rush to export domestically produced vaccines—even as it made its own citizens wait for jabs—had French President Emmanuel Macron worrying the West would lose the “war over vaccines.” But instead of cozying up to Russia, recipient countries in Africa and elsewhere complained about unkept delivery promises, price gouging, and limited vaccine efficacy. These highly publicized failures will likely compound Moscow’s unpopularity around the world, international relations scholar Samuel Ramani concludes.


4. Belgium’s COVID-19 Comeback Is a Model for the World

by Peter Vanham, Aug. 15

In a contest for worst handling of the pandemic, Belgium would surely be one of the winners—at least early on, when it struggled to get one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks under control. But in one of the pandemic’s most inspiring turnarounds, the country launched a highly effective vaccination campaign that offers important lessons to countries still struggling with logistics and continued hesitancy.


5. Can Biden’s Vaccine Patent Waiver End the Pandemic?

by Michael Hirsh, May 6

In this prescient article, FP’s Michael Hirsh explains why tinkering with patent regulations—proffered by the Biden administration as a fix to getting more vaccines produced in the developing world—was never going to be effective in an ongoing pandemic. The article’s call for raising exports and increasing donations to poorer countries was spot on. Patent waivers make sense for the next global pandemic, but the world needs to hurry: Eight months later, waivers are still only being discussed.

Stefan Theil is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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