China’s COVID-19 vaccines are being given the green light without the data being revealed. Why?

23-Jan-2021 Intellasia | AbcNet | 6:02 AM Print This Post

China has been on a COVID-19 vaccine charm offensive.

The country’s public image has come a long way after a dire start to 2020, where Beijing was roundly criticised for being too slow to respond to the coronavirus as it suppressed and punished locals who spoke out.

One year on, and China is outperforming many Western countries in suppressing the virus.

It’s also embarking on “vaccine diplomacy”, where hundreds of millions of doses of Chinese-made vaccines are being offered to low-and middle-income countries.

The uptake of Chinese vaccines comes as the World Health Organization has again reminded richer countries of the need to distribute vaccines equitably.

Last week, China’s Foreign minister Wang Yi wrapped up a tour of South-East Asia by providing loans and pledging to donate vaccines to Myanmar and the Philippines.

Wang also confirmed China would work with Indonesia, which has vaccine-manufacturing capability, to “jointly promote the accessibility and affordability of COVID-19 vaccines in developing and Muslim countries”.

But there are still many significant unknowns about the Chinese vaccine candidates.

None have had stage 3 trial data subjected to peer review.

So why are countries going with Chinese vaccines? And what’s in it for China?

China’s COVID-19 vaccines: The populists’ choice?

Dozens of countries are due to receive the leading Chinese vaccines, manufactured by the firms Sinopharm and Sinovac.

Both use inactivated viruses to prompt an immune response, which means they can be stored at normal fridge temperatures.

This method, shared by the Russian and British vaccines, also makes them cheaper than the mRNA vaccines.

In theory, the Chinese vaccines should also be cheaper, but state media Global Times in December reported the two firms had charged the Chinese government about $40 per dose (the most expensive vaccine in the market sits at $45.60 per dose).

But Indonesia’s state biopharmaceutical firm has said Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine would cost around $18 per dose, so the export price might vary.

Over the past fortnight, countries including Turkey, Indonesia and Brazil have rolled out the CoronaVac vaccine, despite considerable doubts about its efficacy.

There’s an obvious pattern that links these countries: they have large, diverse populations and are headed by populist leaders in young democracies.

Elisabeth Buchanan, a lecturer in strategic studies at Deakin University, said in additional to being given “mates rates”, there were other factors that drew those countries toward China’s offering.

“Friendly states, or at least states who also find themselves at odds with the West more broadly, will naturally gravitate towards likeminded states,” Dr Buchanan said.

“Second, populist leaders are very interested in staying in power.

“This requires little to no public domestic resentment which means fanning domestic support.”

But in Brazil, its populist far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has been vocal about his opposition to the Chinese vaccines.

Last October, he said the “Brazilian people will not be anyone’s guinea pig”.

Over the past few months, Bolsonaro has fought with governors who have made deals with Sinovac.

In Turkey and Indonesia, leaders have urged their populations to support vaccination.

The pandemic has been felt acutely in Indonesia, where there are just four physicians per 10,000 people, according to the latest World Bank data.

It and the Philippines are among the countries in South-East Asia that have the highest number of coronavirus cases.

In Indonesia, those numbers are thought to be significantly higher than what’s officially reported, due to a lack of testing capability.

Meanwhile, Brazil and Turkey have also recorded 8.6 million and 2.4 million cases, respectively, and are among the top 10 worst-hit countries in terms of case numbers.

Why is China selling itself as the developing world’s cure?

Much of the rhetoric surrounding China’s vaccine development has responded to calls for greater equity of distribution.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) press releases have often used the words “accessibility” and “affordability” when discussing Chinese vaccines.

In the past few months, richer countries have scrambled to secure the first batches of vaccines.

That has resulted in poorer nations losing out to bigger players such as the US, UK, and European Union.

To rectify this, the WHO has attempted to ensure equitable distribution via the COVAX facility, but it has been criticised for the time it’s taken to start distributing vaccines.

Dr Buchanan, who is also a fellow of the Modern War Institute at the US West Point military academy, said while China may have altruistic intent with its vaccines, it has also “pounced upon” vaccine inequity to solidify its “strategic endgame”.

“[That's] enhancing influence and power in order to undermine Western prosperity and security,” she said.

“In this day and age, I doubt any state in these transactions believe the ‘goodwill’ motivation, and are well attuned to what must be given in return.

“Vaccine diplomacy is a sound strategic investment which does not necessarily need to be ‘cashed in’ in the short or mid term, and these relationships might only reveal their true nature in decades to come.”

In the short term, vaccine diplomacy could provide China a way to strengthen its claims of global leadership, according to Alyssa Leng, a research associate at the Lowy Institute’s power and diplomacy programme.

“If the vaccines prove effective, it would really demonstrate the depth of their technological progress over the last few years, and it would show how sophisticated its economy has become,” Ms Leng said.

“[It also] fits with China’s recent style of practical diplomacy, similar to how the Belt and Road Initiative’s aimed to deliver tangible outcomes through infrastructure projects.

“Vaccines are another very tangible way for China to achieve its aims abroad.”

Why are countries signing up for China’s vaccines without seeing the data?

Jane Halton is a co-chair of COVAX and chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

She told the ABC that COVAX was not as fast off the mark as high income countries to purchase doses.

She said it was completely understandable that middle-income nations were jumping at the Chinese offers.

“I don’t think people should be passing a judgement about countries who have decided to accept an offer of access to a vaccine, which as yet is unproven,” Ms Halton said.

She noted Australia and other Western countries had also arranged to receive some vaccines before they had gone into phase 3 trials, but only if they proved to be efficacious.

Katie Attwell, a vaccination policy specialist who is researching vaccination readiness at the University of Western Australia, told the ABC this situation showed the need for manufacturers to have their data externally scrutinised.

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, and you believe in the safety and efficacy of your product, why wouldn’t you want other people to reaffirm that?” Dr Attwell said.

“It would be an absolute poisoned chalice if the vaccine led vulnerable populations in dire economic, social and health circumstances, to see vaccines as ineffective.

“That would be a whole new problem we would have to try and solve.”

Portrait of Jane Halton

While China has joined COVAX, neither of its leading vaccine candidates are being considered for distribution under the scheme.

Only one vaccine from a Chinese firm, Clover Biopharmaceuticals, is being considered by the programme. It is in stage 1 trials.

Another candidate being developed by the University of Hong Kong is the second Chinese candidate on COVAX’s list, but that is at the preclinical trial stage.

Ms Halton said countries needed to consider carefully any risks associated with a lack of transparent data.

“What we don’t want is for people in those countries to use a vaccine that ultimately is not proven,” she said.

“[COVAX] is country-of-origin agnostic. We are not agnostic about the data that proves safety and efficacy.”

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-22/china-coronavirus-covid-19-vaccine-equity-sinovac-sinopharm/13066856

 

Category: China

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