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China’s Vaccines: Blessing or Bane?

Dec 15, 2020
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

China vaccine.jpg

UAE approves ‘86 per cent effective’ Chinese coronavirus vaccine. UAE is first government to officially approve Chinese coronavirus vaccine developed by Sinopharm.

With China poised to roll out its long-awaited coronavirus vaccines, it is bracing for criticism and skepticism from some media in the West. The Western media predominately portray China’s efforts to develop vaccines as a “great power competition” with the United States. They cast China’s move to supply vaccines to other nations as “vaccine diplomacy” — an instrument of diplomatic policy intended to repair the country’s “damaged reputation” resulting from an alleged mishandling of the early stages of the pandemic and to gain future political and economic leverage. Further, they question the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines, arguing that quality could be compromised in a rush to give a green light to domestic candidates under internal and external pressure.

As Chinese leaders see it, the development of vaccines is first and foremost about protecting health and saving lives globally. Vaccine developers have a huge commercial stake in being first to cross the finish line. The first companies that successfully develop and produce vaccines — and indeed their country of registration — stand to gain enormous commercial advantage. However, the health of people in the global village is far more important than profit. Thus, vaccine development is not a race between the U.S. and China. Rather, it is essentially a race against time, and against a common enemy of mankind.

Early development and delivery of an effective vaccine, regardless the country origin, represents a victory not just for a particular company or nation but for the human race as a whole. Chinese leaders are also convinced that in the fight against the pandemic governments and people the world over need to come together to support and help each other.

It was in keeping with this spirit that as soon as the genome sequence of the coronavirus was deciphered in early January, China provided it to the rest of the world free of charge — unlike the case of AIDS in 1983, which ignited an acrimonious protracted patent battle between a French scientist and an American one.

The prompt release of the data greatly helped researchers both within and outside China develop vaccines against the coronavirus. What is more, Chinese leaders have repeatedly vowed to treat China’s vaccines as a global public good, to be shared with people in other parts of the world, especially the needy and disadvantaged. The country now looks set to follow through its commitment by sending hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines in the next couple of months.

In a bid to contribute to vaccine availability and affordability in developing countries, China has also donated $2 billion over two years to help them cope. In addition, it has joined the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access facility, an effort led by the World Health Organization to ensure that any safe and effective vaccines can quickly reach rich and poor countries alike.

And yet, all the goodwill of China and its contribution to the global fight against the pandemic is often lost on much of the Western media, as they are in large measure blinded by a habit of viewing China through a geopolitical lens, particularly when the subject relates to the West.

There is also a suspicion that disparaging China’s vaccine development and generosity is a ploy to conceal the indifference of the West toward poor countries by diverting the world’s attention from its vaccine hoarding. 

For months now, the West has been engaged in an intense and expensive competition for to produce effective vaccines, which has largely put these sophisticated pharmaceuticals beyond the reach of poor countries. According to CICC Global Institute, a Beijing-based think tank, as of Dec. 2, the U.S., EU, UK and Japan have placed orders for a total 3.1 billion doses of vaccines from AstraZeneca/Oxford, Moderna, Sanofi/GSK, Curevax, Johnson & Johnson, Valneva and Novavax. The countries are expected to take delivery of at least 2 billion doses of vaccines before the third quarter of 2021, or 88 percent of the planned global production outside China and Russia during the same period. As a result, more than 170 nations with a population numbering some 6.5 billion will be left with approximately 25 million doses of vaccines to get by.   

This would be quite disturbing if the goal of the inventors was to pressure China to abandon its effort to deliver its vaccines to poor countries. Given the dire state of the global vaccine supply in the immediate future, such an eventuality would force people in poor nations, even those high risk groups, to endure at least another six months of suffering with more losses of life and livelihoods. Western vaccine makers are not likely to have the capacity to supply poor countries on a big scale until at least the second half of 2021.

In my discussion with a group of friends on the labeling of China’s efforts to share its vaccines with the rest of the world as “vaccine diplomacy,” I was given an analogy between the Western press and a man standing onshore watching nonchalantly as his neighbor drowns in a fierce sea and accusing the passerby who came to the rescue of harboring ulterior motives.

While the comparison is not precisely apt, it makes a pertinent point. In stark contrast to some rich countries’ intent to vaccinate their own citizens before sharing, China has pledged to make its vaccines available to the world before its own domestic demand is met.

As it turns out, China is not as anxious to roll out its vaccines as the Western media have suggested. A number of Chinese vaccine candidates that are being developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac have undergone the final stage of trials on the scale of Western peers, with encouraging results. No serious adverse effects have been observed in vaccinated groups. Moreover, the authorities in the UAE approved one vaccine developed by Sinopharm on Dec. 9, ahead of China’s drug regulators, indicating that the vaccine was 86 percent effective in preventing infections of COVID-19.

Far from treating vaccine approval as a race to victory, China is taking its time to scrutinize the trial data to confirm safety and efficacy. To Chinese leaders, these are the priorities for vaccine development because these two factors are critical to protecting health and saving lives, which is what the whole effort is about.

Apparently, China is not interested in competing with Russia or the U.S. to be the first country to grant its vaccines full approval. Instead, it is striving to ensure the quality of its vaccines so they can help end the suffering of millions of people around the world and drive global economic recovery.

For this reason, much of the developing world has expressed confidence in Chinese vaccines. Countries such as Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico and the UAE have struck deals with China’s vaccine makers to buy hundreds of millions of doses. Many other developing countries are following suit.

It would be quite unfortunate, however, if the Western media continue to sow mistrust and fear in Chinese-made vaccines. The results of that could be catastrophic. Again, let us bear in mind that the lives of the people everywhere are what really matters.

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