Printed on Mon Jul 04 2022 2:06:52 AM

China promotes its vaccines to win friends

Staff Correspondent
World
vaccines to win
The Philippines will have quick access to a Chinese coronavirus vaccine. Latin American and Caribbean nations will receive $1 billion in loans to buy the medicine. Bangladesh will get more than 100,000 free doses from a Chinese company.

Never mind that China is still most likely months away from mass-producing a vaccine that is safe for public use. The country is using the prospect of the drug’s discovery in a charm offensive aimed at repairing damaged ties and bringing friends closer in regions China deems vital to its interests.

Take, for example, Indonesia, which has long been wary of Beijing. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, assured the nation’s president, Joko Widodo, in a call last week: “China takes seriously Indonesia’s concerns and needs in vaccine cooperation.”

Xi hailed the two countries’ cooperation on developing a vaccine as “a new bright spot” in relations, according to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry. “Together, China and Indonesia will continue to stand in solidarity against COVID-19,” he promised.

China’s vaccine pledges, on top of earlier shipments of masks and ventilators around the world, help it project itself as a responsible player as the United States retreats from global leadership. Beijing’s moves could also help it push back against accusations that the ruling Communist Party should be held responsible for its initial missteps when the coronavirus first emerged in China in December.

The ability to develop and deliver vaccines to poorer countries would also be a powerful signal of China’s rise as a scientific leader in a new post-pandemic global order.

“People are very willing to take a Chinese vaccine,” said Ghazala Parveen, a senior official at the National Institute of Health in Pakistan, where two Chinese vaccine-makers are conducting trials. “In fact, we are being asked by people to have the vaccine ready as soon as possible.”

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

The United States has three vaccine candidates in late-stage trials, with Pfizer saying it could apply for emergency approval as early as October and Moderna saying it hopes to have a vaccine by the end of the year. AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company that received US government funding to develop its vaccine, paused its late-stage global trials this week because of a serious suspected adverse reaction in a participant.

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

Xi has declared that China would make domestically developed vaccines a global public good, though his government has provided few details.

China has long viewed contributing to global health as an opportunity to build its soft power.

“The government definitely would like to see that China is successful in producing a good vaccine and that many countries want it,” said Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and China expert at the RAND Corp. “It’s beneficial for its diplomacy and changing the narrative on COVID.”

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But Chinese vaccine companies that have gone abroad to conduct clinical trials have generated controversy amid fears that local residents are being treated like guinea pigs. And with so much still unknown about the coronavirus, the vaccines could make it to the last stage of trials only to stumble.

Despite the uncertainty, Beijing has pushed its prospective vaccines with confidence and has used them to help smooth over frictions.

Last month, Premier Li Keqiang met with officials from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to damp criticism that China had contributed to a devastating drought in the Southeast Asian nations. He also offered Chinese vaccines — a proposal that was well received.

In a speech during the same summit, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, a staunch supporter of China, singled out Beijing for praise, saying he “would like to give a high appreciation of efforts of our friend China in producing a vaccine.”

In the Philippines, where China is competing with the United States for influence, President Rodrigo Duterte told lawmakers in July that he had “made a plea” to Xi for help with vaccines. He also said he would not confront China over its claims to the South China Sea.

A day later, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said China was willing 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 pledge that once the development and deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit,” Xi told a meeting of African leaders in June. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, promised in July that China would extend $1 billion in loans for vaccines to Latin American and Caribbean countries, according to the government of Mexico.

VoiceTV/DH
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