From Asia to Africa, China Promotes Its Vaccines to Win Buddies

From Asia to Africa, China Promotes Its Vaccines to Win Friends

The Philippines will have quick access to a Chinese coronavirus vaccine. Latin American and Caribbean nations are receiving $ 1 billion in loans to buy the drug. Bangladesh will receive over 100,000 free cans from a Chinese company.

It doesn't matter that China is most likely months away from mass producing a vaccine that is safe for public use. The country is taking advantage of the prospect of the drug's discovery in a magic offensive aimed at repairing damaged connections and bringing friends closer to regions China deems important to its interests.

Take Indonesia, for example, which has long been suspicious of Beijing. China's leader Xi Jinping assured the nation's President Joko Widodo in an appeal last week: "China takes Indonesia's concerns and needs seriously when it comes to vaccine cooperation."

According to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Mr. Xi hailed the two countries' cooperation in developing a vaccine as a "new ray of hope" in the relationship. "Together, China and Indonesia will continue to show solidarity with Covid-19," he promised.

China's vaccination pledges, in addition to past shipments of masks and ventilators around the world, will help shape itself as a responsible player as the US pulls back from global leadership. Beijing's moves could also help dispel allegations that the ruling Communist Party should be held responsible for its initial missteps when the coronavirus first hit China in December.

The ability to develop and deliver vaccines to poorer countries would also send a strong signal of China's rise as a scientific leader in a new world order following the pandemic.

"People are very willing to take a Chinese vaccine," said Ghazala Parveen, a senior official at the National Health Institute in Pakistan, where two Chinese vaccine manufacturers are conducting studies. "In fact, people are asking us to get the vaccine ready as soon as possible."

With some measures, China is leading the global race for a Covid-19 vaccine. It has four candidates in the final phase of clinical trials, more than any other country.

The United States has three vaccine candidates in late-stage trials. Pfizer said they could apply for emergency clearance as early as October, and Moderna hopes to have a vaccine by the end of the year. AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company that has received funding from the US government for the development of its vaccine, canceled its late-stage worldwide trials this week on suspicion of side effects in a participant.

China has approved at least two experimental vaccines under an emergency program that began with soldiers and employees of state-owned companies in July and has tacitly expanded to include health care and aviation workers. The vaccine makers have built factories that can make hundreds of thousands of doses.

Mr. Xi has stated that China would make domestically developed vaccines a global public good, even though his government has given few details.

For a long time, China saw its contribution to global health as an opportunity to build up its soft power.

"The government would definitely like to see China make a good vaccine successfully and that many countries want it," said Jennifer Huang Bouey, epidemiologist and China expert at RAND Corporation. "It is beneficial to his diplomacy and the change in the narrative about Covid."

However, Chinese vaccine companies that have gone abroad to conduct clinical trials have sparked controversy over fears that local residents will be treated like guinea pigs. And with so much still unknown about the coronavirus, the vaccines could make it to the final stage of the trials only to stumble.

Despite the uncertainty, Beijing has advanced its potential vaccines with confidence and used them to make up for any friction losses.

Last month, Prime Minister Li Keqiang met with representatives from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to dampen criticism that China had contributed to a devastating drought in Southeast Asian countries. He also offered Chinese vaccines – a proposal that was well received.

In a speech at the same summit, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a staunch supporter of China, praised Beijing for its praise and said he would like to "pay tribute to our friend China's efforts in making a vaccine."

In the Philippines, where China competes with the United States for influence, President Rodrigo Duterte told lawmakers in July that he had asked Mr. Xi for help with vaccines. He also said he would not confront China over its South China Sea claims.

A day later, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said China was ready to give the Philippines priority access to a vaccine.

Chinese leaders have made similar offers to countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and South Asia – regions where Beijing has sought to expand its influence.

"We promise that once the development and use of the Covid-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit," Xi said at a meeting of African leaders in June. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised in July that, according to the Mexican government, China would provide US $ 1 billion in loans to Latin American and Caribbean countries for vaccines.

For all talk of making vaccines a public good, China appears determined to do so only on its own terms. It has been reluctant to intend to join Covax, a World Health Organization-supported mechanism designed to help countries distribute a coronavirus vaccine fairly. (The Trump administration immediately rejected the initiative.)

"In fact, we have worked with some countries before," Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, told reporters last week. "China always keeps its word."

If China wins the race for a vaccine, it will owe its success to some of these countries who have played an indispensable role in providing human test subjects to Chinese vaccine makers.

Chinese drug makers have conducted their research overseas because the home outbreak has been under control for months.

In Bangladesh, Sinovac Biotech, a Beijing-based vaccine maker, is testing its vaccine on 4,200 healthcare workers in Dhaka, the capital. The Chinese company has agreed to provide over 110,000 free doses of vaccine to the country, said Dr. John D. Clemens, executive director of the International Center for Diarrheal Diseases in Bangladesh, which is helping to conduct the studies.

That is a tiny fraction of the 170 million inhabitants of Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in Asia. And despite participating in the clinical trials in China, Bangladeshis fear that the resulting vaccines may be out of reach for most of the country's citizens.

"If anyone in the world were deprived of their right to a Covid-19 vaccine because of patent rights and profitability, it would be the greatest injustice of this century," said Md. Sayedur Rahman, professor of pharmacology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing has stressed that China will not attempt to establish a monopoly on vaccine supplies. State media reports also denied allegations that China is using vaccines as a diplomatic tool, while government-backed scientists claim that vaccine delivery is altruistic.

"There will certainly be no conditions," said Ruan Zongze, executive vice president of the China Institute of International Studies. "Since it will be a global public good, adding conditions would raise suspicion with the other party."

However, China is already concerned in countries near the end of its overtures and with regional powers that see Beijing as encroaching on their spheres of influence.

In Nepal, where China wants to conduct clinical trials with 500 workers in a cement company, politicians have raised questions about the safety of vaccines and the lack of transparency.

"Shouldn't we be sure about the side effects?" Prakash Sharan Mahat, former Foreign Minister of Nepal and chairman of the country's main opposition party, the Nepali Congress, said in an interview.

India, suspicious of Beijing's intentions in South Asia, has responded to China's vaccine offers for Bangladesh and Nepal with its own pledges to provide vaccines to its allies.

Some countries may have few alternatives to China.

Indonesia has started a clinical trial for Sinovac in the final phase on 1,620 volunteers and has signed an agreement with the Chinese company for 50 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine concentrate that will enable an Indonesian state-owned vaccine manufacturer, PT Bio Farma, to produce doses on site.

Some political experts in Indonesia are concerned about the leverage China would exert on the country, but they acknowledge that Indonesia has no choice.

"Should we be suspicious or should we be grateful?" asked Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an academic at Universitas Islam Indonesia who researches China's foreign policy in Indonesia.

"In my opinion both."

Coverage was contributed by Julfikar Ali Manik, Muktita Suhartono, Bhadra Sharma and Salman Masood. Amber Wang and Claire Fu did research.


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