China attempts to repair reputation in last-ditch push for COVID-19 vaccine

Pakistan Forward and AFP


A Sinovac staff member checks vaccines September 24 in Beijing during a media tour of a new factory built to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. With the rollout of coronavirus vaccines beginning across the world, China is trying to position itself as a key player, promising poorer nations priority access to its jabs. [WANG Zhao / AFP]

BEIJING -- As wealthy countries scramble to buy up the limited supply of big-name coronavirus vaccines, China is stepping in to offer its homegrown jabs to poorer countries.

But the largesse is not entirely altruistic, with Beijing hoping for a long-term diplomatic return.

The strategy carries multiple possible benefits: deflecting anger and criticism over China's early handling of the pandemic, raising the profile of its biotech firms, and both strengthening and extending influence in Asia and beyond.

"There is no doubt China is practising vaccine diplomacy in an effort to repair its tarnished image," Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, told AFP.


A health worker prepares to inoculate a volunteer with a COVID-19 vaccine produced by the Chinese company Sinopharm during a trial in Lima, Peru, December 9. [ERNESTO BENAVIDES / AFP]


This photo taken on August 15 shows spectators watching a performance as they cool off in a swimming pool in Wuhan, China. Stung by criticism of its handling of the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China has made much of its own ability to get its own outbreak under control. [STR/AFP]

"It has also become a tool to increase China's global influence and iron out... geopolitical issues."

Stung by criticism of its handling of the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China has made much of its own ability to get its own outbreak under control, with state media carrying pictures of life as normal at pool parties and sporting events.

In the early months of the pandemic, Beijing ramped up production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hurried to export millions of masks, gowns, ventilators, coronavirus testing kits and other medical equipment.

But much of the PPE and medical equipment emerging from China have been proven to be shoddy and ineffective and tarnished by reports that much of the equipment comes from Muslim 'slave labour' in Xinjiang.

A number of countries have complained about substandard or faulty medical products shipped from China. In some instances, the buyers terminated contracts because of the defective equipment.

Two million protective masks purchased by Finland turned out to be unsuitable for use in hospitals, the Finnish government said in April, the same month the US Justice Department sued a Chinese company for selling nearly a half million fake and substandard N95 masks meant for doctors.

Before that, the Dutch government recalled 600,000 masks out of a Chinese shipment of 1.3 million that did not meet quality standards.

Spain rejected thousands of rapid-testing kits sent by an unauthorised Chinese company after it found in April that they were unreliable.

Vaccine diplomacy -- with conditions

Now, with major Western pharmaceutical companies beginning to bring their vaccines to market, China is rolling out its own versions -- signing agreements to supply millions of doses, including to countries that have a sometimes-prickly relationship with Beijing.

Chinese diplomats have inked deals with Malaysia and the Philippines, both of which have previously complained about Beijing's expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea.

In August, Premier Li Keqiang promised priority vaccine access to countries along the Mekong River, where a devastating drought has been worsened by Chinese dams built upstream.

"China's 'vaccine diplomacy' is not unconditional," Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia and Klaus Heinrich Raditio said in a paper published this month by the Singapore-based Yusof Ishak institute.

"Beijing may use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the South China Sea," they said.

The move by President Xi Jinping to offer up a Chinese vaccine worldwide as a "public good" allows Beijing to paint itself as a leader in global health, said the CFR's Huang.

Now the Chinese regime is ramping up production facilities to make one billion coronavirus shots next year -- and, having largely tamed the outbreak at home, it will have a surplus to sell.

Profiting from the pandemic

While most of the world's economies are struggling as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated businesses and cost countless jobs, China -- the origin of the new coronavirus -- has reported record growth.

If China can capture just 15% of the market in middle and low-income countries, it would net about $2.8 billion in sales, according to an estimate by Essence Securities, a Hong Kong-based brokerage firm.

E-commerce giant Alibaba has already built warehouses in Ethiopia and Dubai that will serve as vaccine distribution hubs for Africa and the Middle East.

Beijing is constructing vaccine production facilities in countries like Brazil, Morocco and Indonesia that have participated in global trials by Chinese drugmakers.

Chinese firms will be able to piggyback on this infrastructure -- part of its Belt and Road Initiative -- further down the line.

"All these efforts, branded as the 'Health Silk Road', are helping China redeem its national reputation while opening up new markets for its companies," Lancaster said.

Vaccine trials are filling the pockets of China's pharmaceutical giants.

Vaccine maker Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical has delivered 3,000 doses of its vaccine and 3,000 placebos to Uzbekistan for phase 3 testing, the Uzbek Ministry of Innovative Development said in a statement Thursday (December 10).

Trials are scheduled to begin Friday (December 11).

Zhifei founder Jiang Rensheng has seen his personal worth triple to $19.9 billion this year, according to an annual Chinese list of richest citizens published in October.

Trust gap

However, there is a fly in the ointment.

China has four vaccines in the final stages of development and is well advanced with mass human testing in a number of countries, including Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

China has given unproven COVID-19 test vaccines to tens of thousands of Chinese outside the traditional testing process, potentially endangering public health and the efficacy of an eventual proven vaccine.

Millions in China have already received a jab.

But unlike the case for vaccines being developed by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, little information about the safety or efficacy of Chinese vaccines has appeared.

The country's communist authorities are allergic to public scrutiny.

"The lack of transparency in China's system means that thousands [inside the country] have already received Chinese vaccines without the relevant testing data having being published," said Natasha Kassam, a China policy analyst at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.

The lack of data "will cause alarm" during a global rollout, she said.

Chinese vaccine makers also have chequered reputations, after major scandals at home and abroad involving expired or low-quality products.

In the global race to find an effective COVID-19 vaccine, Chinese hackers have spared no effort to try to steal vaccine development data from universities, research institutes and pharmaceutical companies in several nations, Western intelligence agencies warned earlier this year.

All of those complications mean that overseas buyers are cautious.

Chinese vaccine frontrunners Sinovac and Sinopharm had pre-orders for fewer than 500 million doses by mid-November -- mostly from countries that have participated in trials, according to the London consultancy Airfinity.

AstraZeneca, meanwhile, has pre-orders for 2.4 billion doses, and Pfizer has about half a billion orders.

Wider trust in Beijing has plummeted this year, with a 14-nation study by the Pew Research Centre in Washington finding a sharp deterioration in perceptions of the country.

"[Societies] that have increasing distrust in China are less likely to trust a Chinese-led vaccine candidate," Kassam said.

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