When addressing the opening of the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly in May last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that once COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment was completed in China, the commodities would be made available as a global public good to developing countries. That promise is now becoming a reality with over 53 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas having received their purchases or donations of the essential commodities from Beijing.
Access to vaccines is deemed to be the most potent and sustainable way out of the global health crisis yet it has remained unbalanced globally with 10 rich economies sucking up over 75% of the already administered Covid-19 vaccines. Meanwhile 130 countries haven’t received a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine, according to the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Thanks to its strong epidemics control experience and capacity, China is now sending more vaccines to other countries than is being administered domestically. This is a sharp contrast to countries which have engaged in vaccines nationalism, some stocking up to four times what they need. China’s move therefore responds to longstanding call by the World Health Organization that able countries should support deprived economies vaccinate at least the frontline workers and vulnerable populations before embarking on mass vaccination campaigns.
Due to constraints by cost and storage requirements for the earlier vaccine candidates from Europe and United States, African countries have watched from the sidelines as other regions go into full vaccination mode. The excitement that accompanied delivery of the 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccines to Zimbabwe earlier this week is therefore understandable. Through the donation, Zimbabwe will inoculate all its frontline health workers, with spillover covering the vulnerable groups. Equatorial Guinea and Senegal have also received donation of Sinopharm, while Sierra Leon is set to get the commodities from Beijing this month.
China has also committed to supply 10 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to meet the needs of developing economies through the WHO led Covax Facility. This is besides the many bilateral deals that various countries are pursuing with regards to acquiring the vaccines from Beijing.
While the posture of China to promote access to vaccines has been viewed by some Western countries as a pursuit of global influence, the ultimate impacts of vaccine nationalism by the same accusers poses far greater threat to the world’s vulnerable.
Data from the WHO for instance indicates that Covid-19 deaths in Africa increased by 40% in January 2021 compared to December 2020; with a case fatality rate of 2.6% against 2.3% global average. New virus mutations with ability to spread much faster are fueling a more dangerous second wave across the continent. Add to the economic toll as a result of the restrictions aimed at cutting the chain of transmission and you end up with a region in dire need of vaccines.
Besides the earlier documented advantages of the Chinese vaccine candidates on the basis of storage requirements and cost, Beijing is now home to a single dose vaccine with 65.7% effectiveness in preventing symptomatic cases and 90.1% efficacy against severe disease. In addition, the Sinovac Biotech vaccine has been found effective against the UK and South African variants.
In order to meet the increasing demand for the commodities around the world, China should ramp up production and distribution facilities and processes. The cold chain air bridge between Shenzhen and Ethiopia as well as the alternate manufacturing hubs in Egypt and Morocco will significantly aid African access of the vaccines from China.
The destructive impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are now well documented in the world. While every government is racing to cushion their population and economy from the disease, it is critical that no country and no individual are left behind. The understanding that no part of the world will be safe as long as some pockets of the globe are under the spell of the virus, should drive even a greater international response.
The writer is a scholar of international relations. Twitter: