China’s decision to join the World Health Organization’s vaccine distribution scheme will help it play a bigger role in the global endeavour to stop a virus that has already killed more than 1 million people worldwide.
The decision – announced on Friday – offers a sharp contrast with the United States, which has rejected the proposal in favour of financing its own set of vaccine candidates and securing doses through bilateral deals.
“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,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
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China decided to join despite “leading the world with several vaccines in advanced stages”, she said.
The move was welcomed by Seth Berkley, the chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a WHO partner leading the initiative, who said it “gives even more momentum to our mission to ensure future Covid-19 vaccines are distributed equitably”.
China joins over 75 wealthy countries including Britain, Japan and Germany that have already signed up for the scheme, which aims to finance vaccine access for an additional 92 low and middle-income countries, delivering at least 2 billion doses to participants by the end of 2021.
Observers say the move presents a significant opportunity for Beijing to extend its geopolitical clout.
“Geopolitically, it’s quite a sensible move on China’s part,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies.
“Because the United States has made such a big deal about not joining Covax, this plays very well to China in conveying the message that, ‘We are a good international, responsible citizen’,” he said.
Ayelet Berman, a senior research fellow at the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore, said it was another example of China “taking on a more assertive and influential international role” as the US relinquished its leadership.
Beijing said in May that any successful vaccines produced by its drug producers would be made a “global public good” but until joining Covax it appeared poised to rely on bilateral deals to deliver on its pledge.
A number of developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia have already been promised priority access.
Mely Caballero-Anthony, head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the decision to take a multilateral path and join Covax added credibility to Beijing’s promise for the vaccine to be a global public good.
“[It’s also] significant as it not only increases the number of countries helping this facility to provide for equitable access and distribution of vaccines, but strengthens the ability to help countries, particularly developing ones,” she said.
It was a “symbolic demonstration of global solidarity to a global problem” that placed China in a positive light, she said.
Four Chinese vaccines are undergoing phase three trials and half a dozen others are also in testing, but joining the scheme provides another potential source of vaccines.
Members of Covax could secure enough doses to cover up to 20 per cent of their population in tranches in the initial stages, with priority given to health workers and other vulnerable groups.
A Gavi spokesperson told Reuters that China “will be procuring vaccines through the facility for a proportion of their own population, just as with other countries that have joined”.
The scheme already covered about 65 per cent of the global population before the entrance of China and its 1.4 billion people.
While that may lead to a squeeze on vaccine supplies, depending on demand, observers say it is more likely to boost Covax’s purchasing power – an important benefit for an initiative designed to stop individual countries buying up limited vaccine stocks.
“[More demand] provides security to your pharmaceutical companies and everyone who is going to invest in this,” said Sara Davies, a professor at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Australia’s Griffith University.
China’s decision to join Covax might also be aimed at “facilitating” the entry of China’s domestic vaccines into the programme, she said.
This “guaranteed income” would be a boon for China’s vaccine producers as they looked to scale up their manufacturing capacity, she said.
Covax will source its doses both from vaccines developed with partner organisation, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and in arrangement with other drug makers.
One mainland Chinese company, Clover Biopharmaceuticals, is already financed by CEPI.
Hua said the government supported the participation of Chinese vaccine producers and said she believed several Chinese vaccine companies had expressed interest in working with Covax.
However, it is unclear how much money China will contribute to the initiative, which remains US$200 million short of its US$2 billion fundraising goal this year. It will also need at least US$5 billion next year.
This week, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Japan jointly pledged more than US$1 billion to Covax’s special advanced market commitment, which funds vaccine access for 92 low and middle-income countries.
Berman said China’s participation would “likely give Covax a significant financial boost”, which when coupled with its potential to provide both vaccines and manufacturing capacity to the scheme would have “a positive impact” on global vaccine access.
Kamradt-Scott agreed: “With China joining, fundamentally, it means that they are part of the solution that we are trying to get towards.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- Covax: China’s in, America’s out, but what is it all about?
- China joins WHO-led Covax scheme to share coronavirus vaccines fairly
- Coronavirus: why China has left its options open for WHO’s global vaccine plan
- Covid-19 vaccine may not be ready until the end of 2021, WHO says
This article Coronavirus: what China’s decision to join the WHO’s vaccine scheme means first appeared on South China Morning Post