China's vaccine diplomacy

China's foreign minister Wang Yi argues China's global position on the global vaccination process
Atalayar_ Sinopharm de China

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Sinopharm China coronavirus disease vaccine boxes (COVID-19)

There is nothing particularly surprising about the emergence of "vaccine diplomacy" as a foreign policy buzzword in 2021. If 2020 was the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, then this year is shaping up to be the year of the vaccine. Following this dynamic, China's State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday reiterated China's opposition to "vaccine nationalism" and emphasised China's commitment to maintaining an equitable distribution of vaccines around the world, saying China rejects any "vaccine divide". 

To date, China has licensed the use of two domestic vaccines: Sinopharm and SinoVac. Unlike the Western vaccines (based on mRNA or modified distinct viruses), the two Chinese vaccines are based on an attenuated version of SARS-Cov-2. The results, as are beginning to be seen in countries such as Brazil or Turkey, are not as good as their Western counterparts. However, they now have effective and cheap vaccines, and since rich nations have reserved most of the doses of Western-developed vaccines expected to be produced this year, China has offered to position itself within the demand of developing countries desperate to stop the pandemic.

For many countries, the current Chinese vaccines are better suited to their needs.They do not need to be stored at the low temperatures of their rivals from Pfizer or Moderna, and CanSino's version requires only one dose. In addition, several of the agreements signed with other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, provide for those nations to license their own injections. This will help respond to strong demand, while supporting the ambitions of these states to become pharmaceutical production hubs in their respective regions.

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AP/LEO CORREA - A health worker administers a dose of Sinopharm vaccine from China to a man during the start of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign at the Ministry of Health in Dakar, Senegal

The two major biotech companies, state-owned Sinopharm and privately owned Sinovac, have sold abroad or received international orders for more than 800 million doses. According to Duke University data, the Chinese doses are in excess of the more than 300 million in Moscow or the 210 million in the World Health Organisation (WHO)-backed COVAX mechanism, which seeks to ensure equitable access to the vaccine for all countries (Beijing has pledged 10 million doses for this instrument).

Hungary began immunising its population with the first units of a 550,000-dose batch of Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine. Last week a plane landed in Buenos Aires with another 900,000. In Manila, 600,000 doses of Sinovac vaccine, the first batch Beijing has donated to the country, were expected to land. "I have to admit it. If we insisted on using Western (vaccines), we would still be waiting for them to arrive," said Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque.

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PHOTO/AFP - Unloading part of a shipment of 200,000 doses of Sinopharm's coronavirus vaccine from China from an Air Zimbabwe aircraft

In Africa, the Chinese have exported vaccines to half a dozen countries and are in talks with dozens more to make the remedies available in the coming months. Similarly, a new air bridge is now in operation between the two regions that will facilitate the transport and distribution of vaccines across Africa. In 2020, China provided around 120 batches of emergency medical supplies to Africa and sent teams of medical experts to 15 African countries exploring their "radius of influence". But it is the large-scale distribution of Chinese vaccines that is causing many experts around the world, particularly in the United States and European countries, to become increasingly concerned about the geopolitical ramifications. To escape possible influences, these countries could use international mechanisms such as COVAX, or join together for joint procurement using models such as the Pan American Health Organization's Revolving Fund or UNICEF's initiatives to strengthen vaccine procurement.

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AFP/AFP - Chart showing, by continent and country, the expected release of Covax vs Covax-19 mechanism vaccines in a first round of deliveries until May

Wang's comments at the high-level briefing on China's foreign policies held in conjunction with the annual two-session meeting come as a response to Western countries' "vaccine diplomacy" to China, and alleged neglect of less developed countries' vaccine demands amid a global supply shortage. China "can use (its vaccines) to become a global leader in ensuring equitable access to vaccines, bridging the gap between developed and developing countries. This would certainly enhance its image in those countries and project soft power," says Yanzhong Huang of the US Council on Foreign Relations. Its "vaccine diplomacy" also allows it to try to "fill the vacuum left by US leadership. The US withdrawal from global leadership has created opportunities for China to fill the gap," he notes. Moreover, "it's not just prestige as a power that is at stake". The vaccine is also a very juicy business: at a price of around $20 per dose in Indonesia, which has ordered 125 million doses of the first two approved Chinese formulations, "that's $2.5 billion..., Chinese companies are going to make a lot of money," adds the expert.