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  • Hamsini Hariharan

How China's COVID-19 vaccinepolitik is boosting its image abroad

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on January 18, 2021 and can be accessed here.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the world have been looking forward to the development of a vaccine that would solve the pandemic, and allow us to move forward with our lives. But vaccine development is not straightforward nor purely about the science behind it. Oxford University’s Astra Zeneca and the US-based Moderna and the joint American and German collaboration Pfizer-BioNTech have already rolled out vaccines in multiple countries, while Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is being used for mass vaccination in the country.

China, on its part, has been eager to prove that it has the scientific temper and the technological advances that would allow it to create indigenous vaccines. Sinopharm, a state-owned company and SinoVac, a private Beijing-based vaccine company have released vaccines that are being used not only across the country but across the world. The Chinese government is keen on vaccinating its 1.4 million people before the mid-February celebrations of Lunar New Year, which would involve extensive travel and possibly a spike in cases. China is also covering all of its bases: In December, it was reported that a Shanghai-based company would import 100 million vaccines from BioNTech pending government approval.

However, because there are extremely few cases of the virus in the country, Chinese vaccine makers have had to look at other countries for trials. They zeroed down on 18 countries for vaccine trials including Pakistan, Cambodia, the Philippines among others. Because the Chinese vaccines are not based on mRNA, they can be stored at refrigerator temperatures rather than the extremely low temperatures that Moderna and Pfizer require. This is important for low and middle-income countries that do not have the cold storage infrastructure that the other vaccines need.

However, the efficacy of the vaccine has come under serious questioning after Brazil revealed that Sinovac’s efficacy rate was 50.4 percent while Indonesia reported 65.3 percent efficacy. Comparing vaccines is difficult because different companies measure efficacy using different indicators, and full data is obviously unavailable. Several developing countries including Turkey, Algeria, the UAE and have agreed to roll out Chinese vaccines, as it would help their large populations even without large levels of effectiveness. As much of the Western vaccines have been pre-purchased for domestic use, it leaves developing countries scrambling for alternatives. This gap is easily being filled by Chinese vaccines, that are available in large quantities for countries in Africa and Asia. This is also boostingChina’s image as a provider of essential, global private goods.

Last week, the Indian government unveiled one of the largest inoculation plans with its two vaccines: the indigenously-developed Covaxin and Covishield, developed in conjunction with Astra Zeneca. Like the Chinese vaccines, however, Covaxin faces critical questions, particularly over its Phase III trials. The Indian government must learn that lack of transparency, both within the country and abroad, only erodes trust in public health systems. Unlike China, it cannot establish a dominant narrative as it is a flourishing democracy, with the freedom to hold elected representatives accountable.

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