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.
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.
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.
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 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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“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.”
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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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.”