China bets big on vaccine diplomacy

The safety of the vaccines should not be a political, ideological or economical issue, but a medical one.

China’s general secretary Xi Jinping has pledged to make Chinese vaccines a “global public good” that will be available to many in the world’s developing countries.  This move has gained momentum and is a diplomatic win for China after a bruising year battling the COVID-19 virus and criticism of early mismanagement.  Be that as it may, apart from easy access, another important criterion to consider is efficacy.  The safety of the vaccines should not be a political, ideological or economical issue, but a medical one.  By Lee Kok Leong, Executive Editor, Maritime Fairtrade

China has more vaccine candidates than any other country, and as Xi has already decreed them as global public good, officials have said that they will be sold at a “fair and reasonable price”, possibly close to cost.  China is also offering a US$1 billion loan to Latin American and Caribbean countries to buy vaccines.  Moreover, Xi added that “China will provide US$2 billion dollars over two years to help with Covid-19 response, and with economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries.”

A major advantage of the Chinese vaccines is the ease of transport and storage.  They can be stored at regular refrigerator temperature whereas the vaccines of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna must be kept at -70 deg C and -20 deg C respectively.  This characteristic makes them more convenient, and is sometimes a lifeline, for developing countries with limited cold chain capability. 

In another win, China has joined COVAX, a global COVID-19 vaccine initiative co-led by WHO to support equitable access by rich and poor countries alike, filling up a leadership vacuum left by the retreat of the US from the world stage.  Besides being altruistic, China is also seen as using its vaccines to extend global influence, promote foreign policy objectives and gain an edge in geopolitical disputes it is having with other countries.

So far, there seems to be buy-in from developing countries, even before the Chinese vaccines’ efficacy has been peer-reviewed and proven by independent third parties.  Countries that have received vaccines or secured deals include Indonesia, UAE, Bahrain, Morroco, Egypt, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil and Chile, among others.  Even Singapore, a wealthy country by any comparison, has jumped on the bandwagon by signing an advance purchase agreement with Sinovac.

A spanner in the works

This strategy is a masterclass in diplomacy and should be a public relation coup for China, except for the fact that thus far, there is no data on the efficacy of the vaccines, unlike those of its western counterparts.  Moderna says its vaccine is 94.5 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 and Pfizer reports 95 percent efficacy.  In contrast, none of the Chinese vaccine makers has revealed efficacy findings, even though authorities have already inoculated at least one million citizens.  

In another strange twist of event, a local company, Fosun Pharma, has announced in mid-December that it is buying 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Germany’s BioNTech for use in China even when the country is already at the forefront of vaccine development and production.  In the current atmosphere of the Chinese Communist Party drumming up nationalistic feeling among its citizens, it is indeed disturbing, to say the least, to see this purchase taking place.

Chinese officials and spokespersons from vaccine makers have repeatedly made assurance that the country’s vaccines are safe, while providing no details on efficacy.  This lack of transparency in providing what should be public data is not exactly inspiring trust.  As it is, negative public perception of China is already at a historic high right now.  

Therefore, the best assurance is not words but actions in being transparent and showing the data.  To increase confidence and lessen resistance, all that is needed is convincing, robust, peer-reviewed public data that can be scrutinize by anyone.  This should be enough to shut up most of the naysayers.  A simple gesture really, but inexplicably, is not being done by the Chinese Communist Party.

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