S'pore takes lead in assembling multi-nation grouping to develop Covid-19 vaccine

A group of Singapore government officers spearheaded a multi-nation effort to develop and distribute a Covid-19 vaccine next year to all countries. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - When Covid-19 began its march across the world earlier this year, international diplomacy all but came to a halt. Meetings were cancelled and diplomats were grounded as borders slammed shut.

It was a challenge, said Ambassador Umej Bhatia, Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva where several UN organisations are headquartered, including the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"We couldn't stay in the trenches and say, 'Oh, we can't work because we don't feel safe'."

Far from it.

With modern communication technology and working remotely in their office, he and his staff in the Swiss city were among a group of Singapore government officers who spearheaded a multi-nation effort to develop and distribute a Covid-19 vaccine next year to all countries, rich and poor, big and small.

The need for such vaccine multilateralism was stressed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Global Vaccine Summit and the Global Goal: Unite For Our Future summit, both held virtually in June.

Vaccine nationalism then was on the rise as governments around the world scrambled to secure exclusive access to Covid-19 vaccines ahead of anyone else.

Also, multilateralism is not a luxury, said Mr Bhatia, but an "existential necessity" for small states that depend on global health security for safe flows of trade and people.

Grouping to find vaccine

Ambassador Umej Bhatia and his staff were among a group who spearheaded a multi-nation effort to develop and distribute a Covid-19 vaccine next year to all countries.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

The formation of the Friends of the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (Covax) Facility, or FOF, involved officers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Economic Development Board (EDB).

Switzerland joined, too, as co-chair of FOF.

"With larger countries locking up vaccines for their own use, we worked against the clock and round the clock to advance vaccine multilateralism," said the 50-year-old diplomat.

Within weeks, the informal grouping had 15 members brought together by Singapore: Australia, Canada, the European Union, Iceland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

As of last Friday, all 15 have submitted legally binding commitment agreements to take part in Covax.

The mission of FOF is to discuss and co-create the design of Covax, particularly the financing, governance and allocation of vaccines.

Under Singapore's leadership, it worked closely with Gavi, Cepi and WHO on these issues. Gavi is a public-private vaccine alliance, while Cepi (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) is a global vaccine partnership.

Covax aims to make two billion doses available by the end of next year.

The initiative did not go unnoticed. Vaccine multilateralism

has since been adopted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and senior WHO officials, to push back against the forces of vaccine nationalism.

Size is not destiny

But why Covax and not a bilateral deal, which could be faster?

Acknowledging the complexities of multilateralism, Mr Bhatia explained that its advantage is that the 193 UN nations must follow a rules-based order. This means countries can look forward to a more predictable outcome, which benefits small states in particular, he said.

"Multilateralism extends the range of options for smaller states like Singapore - not just on vaccines, but other issues affecting the global commons that could come back to impact us, like climate change."

Vaccines, however, are just one part of the picture, he said.

Also important is access to other Covid-19 treatments and diagnostic test kits, and this is where WHO's Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator Facilitation Council comes in.

In June, Singapore, as the convener and chair of the Forum of Small States - an informal grouping of 108 countries with populations of less than 10 million - was invited to the council.

"There's strength in numbers, so this established a precedent for dealing with pressing problems (like Covid-19). Size is not destiny," Mr Bhatia added, stressing that Singapore tries to play a constructive role despite its small size. "We were able to speak up and represent the interests of the smallest states, whose views could be ignored or put aside by bigger ones."

Budding space industry

One of the more esoteric bodies that Singapore belongs to is the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (Copuos).

Its interests in Copuos have more to do with the civilian and government functions that outer space supports, such as urban planning, weather monitoring and telecommunications.

Singapore's nascent space industry employs more than 1,000 people across 30 companies, in activities like packaging data from satellite imagery for the construction, maritime safety and agriculture sectors.

Copuos looks after the norms governing these activities, and is the forum to coordinate and harmonise them globally.

Singapore does not join international groupings merely to satisfy its "national ego", said Mr Bhatia.

"When we do so, it's practical, there's a key function, and it accords with what we need to achieve in terms of national interest."

Inspired by veteran diplomats

In the 1990s, Mr Umej Bhatia hosted a current affairs programme on local television called Talking Point.

He saw how Singapore was making an impact on the international scene, with veteran diplomats like Mr Tommy Koh playing a pivotal role in negotiations on the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which is today universally accepted as the modern law of the sea.

Inspired as well by former permanent secretaries Kishore Mahbubani and Bilahari Kausikan, he switched career and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 1996.

SPH Brightcove Video
Many will know him from his time as the host of Talking Point. Today, Umej Bhatia is Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva and Vienna.

"They were really making a dent at the global level and it intrigued me," Mr Bhatia, now 50, told The Straits Times at the MFA building in Sherwood Road in Tanglin.

Today, he oversees Singapore's Offices to the UN in Geneva and Vienna, including being Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

He has also been on the Middle East circuit and in 2001, his family was evacuated from their apartment during the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in New York, where he was part of a team that represented Singapore at its first and only term as a non-elected member of the UN Security Council.

But what was most memorable for him was the period leading up to the 2003 war in Iraq, when he was managing the Iraq dossier for Singapore. He and a group of junior diplomats drafted the UN Security Council Resolution 1441, giving then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime a last chance to comply with its disarmament obligations.

"I experienced first-hand the high stakes of global war and peace in the council deliberations," he said of the tense, closed-door debates in the crowded council consultations room then.

"It was an invaluable lesson in real power politics - how diplomacy worked, and did not work."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.