China puts the pedal to the metal on vaccine diplomacy. There are concerns | Analysis
Turkey has joined a growing list of 100-plus countries who, Chinese state media claims, have ordered Covid shots produced by Chinese companies despite an unusual delay in the release of data on the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
China controversially launched the emergency vaccine use programme in July this year, mostly directed at frontline workers and those travelling abroad. Over the next four months, the government-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) has said a million people in China have taken the experimental vaccine. But Beijing hasn’t put out any information about the safety or efficacy of the vaccine that relies on a killed virus, similar to how polio immunizations work.
The first bit of information on this account came from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that went ahead to approve Sinopharm’s vaccine on 9 December, citing data from its Phase III clinical trials. The UAE health ministry said the trials had shown an 86% efficacy, short of the 94.1% reported for Moderna’s vaccine and 95% for the Pfizer-BioNTech collaboration. Abu Dhabi’s move to announce the 86% figure is unusual because there has been no statement from the company on the efficacy of its vaccine.
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“Usually [clinical trial] data is revealed by the sponsor and eventually published in a peer-reviewed journal,” Peter Shapiro, senior director of drugs at GlobalData, told Nikkei Asia.
Bahrain followed the UAE’s footsteps days later. And the first shipment of Chinese Sinopharm’s vaccine cleared by close ally UAE landed in Egypt soon after. By then, Indonesia had received 1.2 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine made by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech’s experimental Covid-19 vaccine CoronaVac; another 1.8 million doses will arrive in January.
Analysts have described the Chinese effort to promote and push its vaccines as an opportunity for Beijing to bolster its international influence in the developing world, particularly after funding for President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative slowed down and criticism mounted over its handling of the emergence of the coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. It was in this context that President Xi had, back in May, promised to the World Health Assembly to make the Chinese vaccine a “global public good”.
“It has also become a tool to increase China’s global influence and iron out... geopolitical issues,” Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations told AFP earlier this month.
Besides, analysts warn that the vaccine diplomacy, as China’s outreach to the developing world has been called, may not be unconditional.
“Beijing may use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the South China Sea,” Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia and Klaus Heinrich Raditio said, according to news agency AFP, in a paper published this month by the Singapore-based Yusof Ishak Institute.
It also makes economic sense for China. According to an estimate by a Hong Kong-based brokerage firm Essence Securities cited by the news agency, China could tap gold at the bottom of the pyramid, netting around $2.8 billion in sales if Beijing can capture just 15% of the vaccine market in middle and low-income countries.
Not everyone, however, is willing to bet on the Chinese vaccines in the absence of data on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
For one, Cambodia, China’s closest ally in the region, has unveiled plans to acquire 1 million doses for the first batch of Covid-19 vaccinations. It has, however, made it clear that it won’t go for untested vaccines but use the United Nations-backed Covax facility that subsidises vaccines for 92 lower-income countries.
“Cambodia is not a dustbin... and not a place for a vaccine trial,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said this month, a clear signal that Phnom Penh is unlikely to, at this stage, take up Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on his offer in October to supply the vaccines on priority.