Coronavirus: China joins WHO-backed vaccine distribution initiative

Beijing's participation a boost for global Covax scheme shunned by US and Russia

The decision allows China to positively contrast itself with the United States as tensions between the world's two biggest economies spiral on fronts from trade to technology and human rights. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING/GENEVA • China has joined a global scheme for the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the country said yesterday, giving a major boost to an initiative shunned by US President Donald Trump.

Beijing's latest bid to join the global fight against the coronavirus follows criticism over its handling of the pandemic, which has contributed to a growing unfavourable view of China in advanced nations, a recent survey showed.

"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," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said.

The decision, which comes about three weeks after a deadline set by the initiative, allows China to positively contrast itself with the United States 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The Trump administration has withdrawn from the WHO and refused to join the Covax initiative, with a spokesman for the White House saying the US would not "be constrained by multilateral organisations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organisation and China".

In May, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged US$2 billion (S$2.71 billion) over the next two years to tackle the pandemic that has killed more than one million globally.

China, where the virus was first reported late last year, is also in talks with the WHO to have its domestically made vaccines assessed for international use.

As many as 171 nations have joined the programme to back equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for rich and poor countries alike. Participants include about 76 wealthy, self-financing ones, but neither the US nor Russia.

Covax is co-led by the Gavi vaccine alliance, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi).

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.

"Vaccine deals are under way and we are fast approaching our initial fund-raising target to jump-start support for lower-income countries," Gavi's chief executive, Dr Seth Berkley, told Reuters.

"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 also means China will be procuring vaccines through the facility for 1 per cent of its own population, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. China has ample capability to make a Covid-19 vaccine and will prioritise supplies to developing countries when they are ready, the ministry added.

At least four experimental vaccines are in the final stages of clinical trials in China. Two are being developed by state-backed China National Biotec Group, and two by Sinovac Biotech and CanSino Biologics.

China has also inoculated hundreds of thousands of essential workers and other high-risk groups, though incomplete clinical trials have provoked safety concerns among experts.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: China joins WHO-backed vaccine distribution initiative. Subscribe