Skip to main content

Congress discusses 'strategic opportunity' for US vaccines in MidEast

The House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing Wednesday focused in part on the reputation of American COVID-19 vaccines in the Middle East versus Russian and Chinese ones.
people line up for Pfizer vaccine in Ankara

Members of Congress discussed the potential for US coronavirus vaccines to be vehicles for soft power in the Middle East on Wednesday. 

Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey referenced reports that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are offering booster shots of the US-made Pfizer vaccine to people who received China’s Sinopharm vaccine due to concerns about Sinopharm’s effectiveness.

“There is a growing understanding that there is a difference between these vaccines. The Pfizer, Moderna and J&J shots that we developed are the ones that people are relying on,” said Malinowski, making a reference to the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “I think there is an extraordinary strategic opportunity for the United States that we’re just beginning to take.” 

The House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa was hosted by the subcommittee for the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism.

The use of American vaccines versus Chinese and Russian ones in the region was one of the topics of discussion. It was first brought up by Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina. Carla Humud, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said China and Russia are expanding their influence in the Middle East and North Africa via the distribution of vaccine doses. 

“Russia and China have both used vaccine supply as a tool of soft power in the MENA region,” said Humud. 

She said the UAE, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq and Algeria have all used China’s Sinopharm vaccine. The West Bank, Gaza, Syria and Iran have used Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. 

Humud said domestic distribution issues “could potentially leave a window for countries like Russia and China to expand their influence.”

Eman Moankar from the CARE International humanitarian organization agreed with Malinowski that American vaccines are more trusted. She said that people in Jordan, where she is based, sometimes only want Pfizer doses. 

“When it’s available, vaccination centers are packed. Hundreds of people go,” said Moankar. “If they go and they find that it’s not the Pfizer vaccine, they go back. They cancel the appointment.”

Republican Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas also advocated distributing American-made vaccines to regional allies so they do not need to rely on the World Health Organization. He said the effectiveness of US vaccines demonstrates the “power of the free market and capitalism.”

Hallam Ferguson of the Washington-based Wilson Center mentioned the effectiveness concerns with Chinese vaccines, as well as Russia’s rate of vaccine production. 

“Russian vaccines are simply not produced at a scale adequate for the global need. So this really is an opportunity for United States ingenuity and industry to step ahead and help our friends in the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Ferguson. 

More than 50% of Americans have received a COVID-19 vaccine dose, compared with around 14% of Russians, according to Our World in Data. 

The Pfizer vaccine is already being used in parts of the Middle East. Israel used the Pfizer vaccine extensively. Iraq has also received Pfizer doses, and Turkey signed an agreement to import the Pfizer vaccine last month and has been administering it. 

Earlier this month, the State Department told Al-Monitor that several Middle Eastern countries would receive US vaccine doses via President Joe Biden’s vaccine-sharing initiative. 

The lawmakers also discussed the vaccine situation in the Palestinian territories. Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina asked if it was possible to help the Gaza Strip fight the virus without benefiting Hamas. Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania said US assistance should not reward enemies of the United States and its allies. 

“We gotta be careful and we can’t allow our generosity to be corrupted by bad actors,” in a reference to the “Hamas terrorist organization.” 

Perry also said that Biden’s resumption of aid to the Palestinian Authority was “reprehensible” since the representative body pays families of Palestinians who have killed Israelis. 

Moankar responded by saying, “Civilian populations do not choose who controls the area they are living in.” 

The Palestinian territories have not had elections since 2006. 

Manning also brought up the health aspect of Lebanon’s economic crisis. Humud said the US government has been providing aid directly to Lebanese health facilities due to corruption concerns. 

“That reflects concerns that policymakers have regarding potential mismanagement, corruption, diversion of funds,” she said. 

More from Adam Lucente