China to send 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses abroad

BEIJING: China on Wednesday (Feb 3) announced a plan to provide 10 million coronavirus vaccine doses to developing nations through the global COVAX initiative.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China is responding to a request from the World Health Organization as developing countries seek to fill shortages predicted to run through March. He did not offer details on which vaccine China was providing to COVAX, or whether it was a donation.

COVAX, coordinated by the World Health Organization and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, seeks to ensure low- and middle-income countries have enough shots as wealthy nations have snapped up a large part of the billions of upcoming doses from mostly Western vaccine makers.

“We hope countries in the international community with the capability will swing into action, support COVAX through practical actions, support the work of the World Health Organization, assist developing countries in obtaining vaccines in a timely manner and contribute to … conquering the pandemic at an early date,” Wang said a daily briefing.

WHO is in the process of approving Chinese vaccines for emergency use, he added.

READ: More than 100 million people vaccinated against COVID-19

COVAX has secured only a fraction of the 2 billion doses it hopes to buy in 2021. Pfizer last month committed to supply up to 40 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine this year through COVAX. The facility also has 150 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

China has already shipped large numbers of its own vaccine to mainly developing countries, and it has pursued bilateral deals or donations with at least 27 countries. In Turkey alone, Chinese company Sinovac Biotech has struck a deal to sell 50 million doses.

These global efforts are seen by many as an attempt to boost China’s reputation amid concerns over its growing military and economic influence and willingness to use its political leverage to defend what it considers its core interests.

READ: China says coronavirus traces found in vaccination sites, but not infectious

Two Chinese companies, state-owned Sinopharm and Sinovac, have been behind a large part of the effort to take Chinese vaccines abroad. Both companies’ vaccines are inactivated, relying on a traditional technology of growing and killing a live virus. The virus is then purified before it is given as an injection.

The inactivated vaccines appear to be less effective than mRNA vaccines. However, they are easier to transport than Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine, which requires ultracold storage, a challenge for many lower-income countries.

Only one of the vaccines, made by Sinopharm, has been approved for general use within China. Both however have won either emergency or broader approvals in other countries, and are actively being used in mass vaccination campaigns from the United Arab Emirates to Indonesia.

READ: Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine remained active against South Africa variant, effect reduced: Study

The vaccines have been criticised for lack of transparency on their data from the final stage of clinical trials.

Sinopharm said its vaccine is 79.3 per cent effective. Sinovac’s shot in particular has raised concerns after it initially announced an efficacy rate of 78 per cent at protecting against symptomatic illness, but after counting mild cases announced that effectiveness is just over 50 per cent, based on its trial in Brazil.

READ: Commentary – China’s COVID-19 vaccines have gone from lab to public at breakneck speed. Are they safe and effective?

China is also anxious to dismiss criticism of early missteps in handling the pandemic after the first cases were detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. A team of WHO experts is currently in the city to collect data in a search of clues about the virus’s origins.

China has called the virus a mutual challenge facing humanity and even suggested it may have been brought from outside the country.

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