China joins Covax initiative for Covid-19 vaccine distribution

Nine experimental vaccines are in the pipeline of the Covax facility.
Nine experimental vaccines are in the pipeline of the Covax facility.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China said on Friday (Oct 9) it has joined a global Covid-19 vaccine initiative co-led by the World Health Organisation (WHO), becoming the 170th country and biggest economy to date to support equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines to rich and poor countries alike.

“This is fantastic news, which gives even more momentum to our efforts to ensure global, equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines,” said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI vaccine alliance.

Covax is co-led by the GAVI vaccines alliance, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

The move means China “will be procuring vaccines through the facility for a proportion of their own population, just as with other countries that have joined”, a GAVI spokesman said.

“Vaccine deals are underway and we are fast approaching our initial fundraising target to jumpstart support for lower-income countries,” Dr Berkley told Reuters in a statement.

“What seemed like an impossible challenge just a few months ago – ensuring every country, rich or poor, gets equitable, rapid access to Covid-19 vaccines – is now becoming a reality.”

The move by China, where the new coronavirus was first reported, comes as it holds separate talks with the WHO to have its locally produced Covid-19 vaccines assessed for international use. 

It also comes amid international criticism about Beijing’s handling of the pandemic that led unfavourable views towards China to soar in a recent survey of advanced countries.

China will purchase Covid-19 vaccines for 1 per cent of its population, or 15 million people, via a global scheme backed by the World Health Organisation, the Foreign Ministry said on Friday.

The first batch of vaccine available under the plan will be in short supply, so there would be less for other countries if China had secured doses for a large number of its 1.4 billion people, ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news briefing.

China has at least four experimental vaccines in the final stage of clinical trials – two are developed by state-backed China National Biotec Group (CNBG), and the remaining two are from Sinovac Biotech and CanSino Biologics, respectively. It is in talks with the WHO to have its domestically made vaccines assessed for international use.

Self-financing countries in the Covax scheme can request vaccine doses sufficient for 10-50 per cent of their populations, GAVI said on its website.

Funded countries will receive enough doses to vaccinate up to 20 per cent of their population in the longer term, GAVI said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in May pledged US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) over the next two years to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 1 million lives to date. 

"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," Ms Hua Chunying said in a statement. 

She also said that China has ample Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing capabilities and will prioritise supplying developing countries when vaccines are ready. 

China joins some 168 countries that have already announced their participation in Covax including 76 wealthy, self-financing ones.

But neither the United States nor Russia have joined the programme. 

It is designed to discourage national governments from hoarding Covid-19 vaccines and to focus on first vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country.

The Covax facility aims to deliver at least 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of 2021. 

The head of WHO said on Tuesday a vaccine against Covid-19 may be ready by year-end.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for solidarity and political commitment by all leaders to ensure equal distribution of vaccines when they become available.

"We will need vaccines and there is hope that by the end of this year we may have a vaccine. There is hope," Dr Tedros said in final remarks to the WHO's Executive Board, without elaborating.