China to make decision on WHO vaccine program snubbed by Donald Trump
China faces a major test in its vaccine diplomacy, with a deadline fast approaching on whether it will officially join a World Health Organization-backed effort to ensure everyone across the globe is inoculated against Covid-19.
Friday is the final day for governments to decide whether to take part in Covax, an $18 billion initiative that aspires to give lower-income countries the same access to vaccines as wealthier nations. Beijing has said it “supports” Covax without clearly saying if it’s putting any money into the project. The confirmed list of participants will be published on Monday, Sept. 21, according to the WHO.
Signing up would help to repair China’s image around the world over how it handled the initial outbreak in Wuhan, particularly since the Trump administration has refused to join Covax. So far, Beijing has focused on cutting one-on-one deals for vaccine doses with friendly governments as the US urges nations to shun Chinese companies for 5G networks, computer chips and big infrastructure projects.
“Beijing is battling criticism from the West over the origin of Covid-19 in Wuhan and China’s transparency around the early days of the virus spread,” said Kelsey Broderick, an analyst at Eurasia Group. “Joining a popular initiative like Covax would certainly help shift the perception that China is a bad actor.”
President Xi Jinping in May promised that vaccines developed by China will be a global “public good” that can be shared by all. Still, China hasn’t clarified if it will sign up, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying only saying this month that China’s actions are “in essence the same with Covax.”
Covax, which is also led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the vaccine alliance Gavi, is designed to give governments an opportunity to hedge the risk of backing unsuccessful vaccine candidates and give less developed countries access to shots that would be otherwise unaffordable. It currently has nine vaccines in development and nine under evaluation in its portfolio. The goal is to secure 2 billion doses by 2021.
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Self-financing countries can pay up front for vaccine doses that would cover as much as 50% of their populations, though shots would be proportionally distributed among poor and rich countries alike as they become available. Governments that sign up are free to reach bilateral deals to secure supplies separately. Having China on board would be a big deal for Covax, which had some 172 countries in discussion to participate as of Aug. 24. The possibility of providing doses to even a fraction of China’s 1.4 billion people would boost critical mass, enhancing the alliance’s negotiating power.For China, Covax could act as a kind of insurance policy that allows it access to any successfully developed vaccine. While being a member doesn’t necessarily mean Chinese vaccines will be included in Covax’s portfolio, it’s probable that’ll be the case. China could also provide manufacturing support for a successful vaccine, regardless of which country develops it.Participation could mean that Chinese vaccine manufacturers play a significant role in the global roll-out. And if a Chinese-developed vaccine were selected their brands would benefit from WHO certification, according to Xiaoqing Lu Boynton, a consultant at Albright Stonebridge Group who focuses on health care and life sciences.
China Made an Epic Dash for PPE That Left World Short on Masks“It would be a big boost for Beijing both from the industry perspective as well as politically,” she said.
China doesn’t have much experience in manufacturing and distributing a vaccine for global consumption. The industry’s reputation took a hit in 2018 when two Chinese vaccine-makers were found to have cut corners in production, undermining confidence both at home and abroad.Still, China has been a front-runner in developing vaccines against the coronavirus. Nine of China’s vaccine candidates have entered clinical trials, and four of them got approval for final stage Phase III clinical trials in foreign countries.
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The vaccine could help Beijing make up lost diplomatic ground as China comes under fire for threats to Taiwan as well as human-rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. China has promised to prioritize providing doses for at least 62 countries, including governments that have received infrastructure loans under Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Morocco have formal agreements with China’s major vaccine manufacturers, and Egypt is close to signing one.
“Both the Chinese government and state-owned enterprises would much like to protect their own infrastructure projects as well as personnel on the ground,” said Yu Jie, senior research fellow on China at think tank Chatham House. “If the epidemiological situation improves across those countries, it would help China too.”
Latin American and Caribbean countries have been promised a $1 billion loan to purchase a Chinese designed vaccine. Currently, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina have all made commitments to testing a Chinese vaccine. The region remains the hardest hit, with Brazil, Mexico and Peru among the world’s top 10 countries by total Covid-related deaths.
Sill, a global lack of trust in China due to Xi’s more aggressive foreign policy makes the international community doubtful of China’s behavior and intentions, said Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct professor at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in Chinese diplomacy.“Under these circumstances, how can countries trust China?” he said.
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An incident involving CanSino and Canada underscored concerns that China could use its vaccine for political purposes. The Chinese company was supposed to send its vaccine candidate so that clinical trials could begin in Canada, but Chinese customs hasn’t approved the shipments, according to the National Research Council Canada.Malaysia is in talks with many parties, including China. “We have more questions than answers at the moment,” said Noor Hisham Abdullah, the Southeast Asian nation’s Director General of Health. Vietnam, which has sparred with Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, last month agreed to purchase millions of doses of Russia’s vaccine, and it’s developing a national one expected to be ready late next year.
Not everyone is concerned. The Philippines, which has expressed a willingness to accept a vaccine from the U.S., Russia, and China, rejected any notion that China may be using the vaccine to curry diplomatic favors. “No such concern about China’s vaccine at all,” said Teodoro Locsin, the Philippine foreign affairs secretary.“I think that it’s in China’s interest to join,” said Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s cabinet and founder of the Center for China and Globalization, referring to Covax. “If the world is still in the pandemic, China will not be in good shape either.”
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