China’s coronavirus vaccines: for many countries, it’s not political, it’s the only choice
- When it comes to the driving forces behind purchase agreements with China, the picture that emerges is one of adequate solutions meeting extreme demand. China, and now Russia, are winning purchase agreements simply by being able to deliver
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When it comes to the driving forces behind purchase agreements with China, the picture that emerges is one of adequate solutions meeting extreme demand. China, and now Russia, are winning purchase agreements simply by being able to deliver.
I hear the same thing again and again from experts and locals in countries inoculating people with Chinese vaccines. From Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, they all tell me – it’s not a political choice, it’s the only choice.
Belgrade-based analyst Stefan Vladisavljev said: “It’s not about geopolitics, it’s about – don’t die, go to work, get the economy back running.”
Many scientists I’ve spoken to about Chinese vaccines have been critical about the lack of published data associated with Sinovac and Sinopharm – the two Chinese vaccine makers with shots currently on the market. But the bottom line is that countries have the right to decide for themselves about the utility and safety of Chinese vaccines based on the data they’ve seen.
Or, as Achal Prabhala, who campaigns for equal access to medicines through AccessIBSA, put it, “These countries are doing these deals with their eyes wide open – nobody has a gun to their head.”
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There’s a whole conversation to be had about how a successful vaccine roll-out might facilitate China’s own biopharma industrial strategy, but this vaccine business isn’t a one-way street – regional dynamics and the national ambitions of partner countries play a pivotal role.
Sinovac has partnered with the Buntantan Institute in Brazil, while in Southeast Asia it has struck up agreements with institutions in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Chinese vaccine makers sought out these partnerships because low infection rates at home meant they had nobody to trial their vaccines on, but the benefits for partner countries are manifold.
Then there are the wider implications for economic and diplomatic ambitions. The UAE has vaccinated millions of people using Sinopharm’s vaccine, more than the vast majority of countries in terms of shots in arms per capita.
G42, the artificial intelligence and cloud computing company that partnered with Sinpharm in the UAE, says it explored “vaccine options with leading global pharma companies from around the world”. Sinopharm was chosen because of its criteria that a partner be “willing to conduct phase three clinical trials in [the] UAE to ensure a deeper understanding of safety protocols, and build native capabilities”.
Sinopharm provided a relationship not offered by Western vaccine makers, a full-scale transfer of tech, competencies and the chance to manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine in the UAE for regional distribution.
The Emirati government, with its Ministry of Possibilities and penchant for buzzwords, is desperate to diversify away from oil and gas and into cutting-edge industries – biopharma and medical tourism included.
Becoming a manufacturing hub for the vaccine also provides the UAE with diplomatic leverage of its own. It has donated vaccines to the Seychelles already, and is likely to use its petrodollars and vaccine capabilities to curry favour in the wider region.
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These are a messy basket of factors and concerns, but this is largely the point – viewing everything China does in terms of geostrategic competition is limiting.
But if there is indeed a strategic competition to be won, then objectivity is essential. Beijing is satisfying local interests and helping plug a colossal gap in supply – if Brussels and Washington care about winning, they need to do better.
Jacob Mardell is an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies