China will take part in a World Health Organization-backed effort to provide a coronavirus vaccine to developing nations, filling a void in global health leadership after U.S. President Donald Trump spurned the program.
Beijing on Thursday joined the $18 billion Covax initiative that aspires to give lower-income countries the same access to vaccines as wealthier nations. The move came despite China "leading the world with several vaccines in advanced stages of R&D and with ample production capacity," spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on Friday.
"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," she said.
The move, which comes some three weeks after a deadline set by the initiative, allows China to positively contrast itself with the U.S. as tensions between the world's two biggest economies spiral on fronts from trade to technology and human rights. The Trump administration has withdrawn from the WHO and refused to join Covax, with a spokesman for the White House saying the U.S. wouldn't "be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China."
President Xi Jinping promised in May that vaccines developed by China would be made a global "public good" to be shared by all. The decision could also help the country's image following widespread criticism from abroad over how it handled the initial outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, where COVID-19 first emerged last year. A global survey this week by the Pew Research Center found that negative perceptions of China reached record highs in the U.S. and other major economies.
'Soft Power Win'
"In many ways this is a soft power win for China, coming amidst a slew of negative reports in other fields in recent weeks," said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong. "It is a win made all the easier by President Trump's impetuous decision to withdraw from the WHO and his short-sighted refusal to commit the U.S. to Covax. Now anything America does in this area will be seen as catching up to China, when the U.S. was expected to lead."
COVID-19 continues to spread in the US, hitting even Trump himself. Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who has a double-digit lead over Trump in national polls, vowed in July to rejoin the WHO if he wins the Nov. 3 election "and restore our leadership on the world stage."
China's participation is also a big gain for Covax, as the possibility of providing doses to even a fraction of China's 1.4 billion people would boost critical mass, enhancing the alliance's negotiating power. Covax is led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the vaccine alliance Gavi. It currently has nine vaccines in development and nine under evaluation in its portfolio, with a goal to secure 2 billion doses by 2021.
While details of China's funding commitment weren't immediately disclosed, Hua told reporters at a regular press briefing in Beijing later on Friday that the country would supply vaccine doses for 15 million people as part of its first Covax purchase - equivalent to just around 1% of its population - so as not to reduce vaccines available for other countries. Participating governments can typically ask for vaccine doses to cover more than 10% of their populations.
"This decision has been made after deliberation and communication with WHO and Covax," Hua said. "This is a result that's in the best interests of all parties."
More than 170 economies are now involved with Covax, vaccine deals are underway and the program is approaching its initial fundraising target to support lower-income countries, Seth Berkley, chief executive officer of Gavi, said in an emailed statement.
China's decision "gives even more momentum to our efforts to ensure global, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines," he said.
China has been a front-runner in developing vaccines against the coronavirus. Nine of its vaccine candidates have entered clinical trials, and four of them got approval for final stage Phase III clinical trials in foreign countries. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco and Egypt have formal agreements with China's major vaccine manufacturers.
For Beijing, participation would provide a de facto insurance policy that allows it access to any successfully developed vaccine. China could also provide manufacturing support for a successful vaccine, regardless of which country develops it.
"The potential role for Chinese vaccines manufacturers to play in the global rollout under Covax will not only boost the domestic industry, but also help add much-needed credibility to Chinese-developed vaccines," said Xiaoqing Lu Boynton, a consultant at Albright Stonebridge Group who focuses on health care and life sciences.
It's also a good PR move.
"China needs more friends," said Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct professor at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in Chinese diplomacy. "That's why China thinks it needs to take a clearer message to engage internationally."