Picture: 123RF/DENNIZN
Picture: 123RF/DENNIZN

China is participating in a World Health Organisation-backed vaccine effort, stepping in to fill a void in global health leadership after US President Donald Trump spurned the programme.

Beijing on Thursday joined the $18bn Covax initiative that aspires to give lower-income countries the same access to vaccines as wealthier nations, the Chinese foreign ministry said. Details of China’s commitment, including its amount of funding, were not immediately disclosed.

“Even when China is leading the world with several vaccines in advanced stages of R&D and with ample production capacity, it still decided to join Covax,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement on Friday. “We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more capable countries will also join and support Covax.”

President Xi Jinping promised in May that vaccines developed by China would be made a global “public good” to be shared by all. The decision could also help the country’s image after widespread criticism from abroad over how it handled the initial outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 first emerged last year.

A global survey this week by the Pew Research Center found that negative perceptions of China reached record highs in the US and other major economies. In nine of the countries — including Australia, Canada, Germany, South Korea, the UK and US — negative opinion reached its highest point since the non-partisan organisation began polling on the topic more than a decade ago.

“In many ways this is a soft power win for China, coming amid a slew of negative reports in other fields in recent weeks,” said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong. “It is a win made all the easier by President Trump’s impetuous decision to withdraw from the WHO and his short-sighted refusal to commit the US to Covax. Now anything America does in this area will be seen as catching up to China, when the US was expected to lead.”

China’s participation is a big win for Covax, as 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. A spokesperson for the Trump administration in September said the US would not “be constrained by multilateral organisations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organisation and China.”

Covax is led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the vaccine alliance Gavi. It has nine vaccines in development and nine under evaluation in its portfolio, with a goal to secure 2-billion doses by 2021.

For China, participation would provide a de facto insurance policy that allows it access to any successfully developed vaccine. Beijing could also provide manufacturing support for a successful vaccine, regardless of which country develops it.

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 3 clinical trials in foreign countries.


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