China’s Vaccine Diplomacy Just Got a Big Win. But Can the Country Deliver?

The World Health Organization has approved a Chinese vaccine for emergency use. The announcement comes at a time when officials in the country are warning of a domestic shortage.

By Sui-Lee Wee

Developing countries racing for coronavirus vaccines now have another dependable option — and China’s reputation as a rising scientific superpower just got a big boost.

The World Health Organization on Friday declared a vaccine made by a Chinese company, Sinopharm, as a safe and reliable way to fight the virus. The declaration marks a significant step toward clearing up doubts about the vaccine, after little late-phase clinical trial data was disclosed by the Chinese government and the company.

The W.H.O. emergency use approval allows the Sinopharm vaccine to be included in Covax, a global initiative to provide free vaccines to poor countries. The possible inclusion in Covax raises hopes that more people — especially those in developing nations — will get access to shots at a crucial moment.

Rich countries are hoarding doses of vaccines. India, a major vaccine maker, has stopped exports to address its worsening coronavirus crisis. Safety concerns led health authorities in some countries to temporarily pause the use of vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

“The addition of this vaccine has the potential to rapidly accelerate Covid-19 vaccine access for countries seeking to protect health workers and populations at risk,” Dr. Mariângela Simão, W.H.O. Assistant-Director General for Access to Health Products, said in a statement.

Reliable vaccine access could improve even further next week when the W.H.O. considers another Chinese shot, made by a company called Sinovac. But the fanfare may be short-lived. While China has claimed it can make up to 5 billion doses by the end of this year, Chinese officials say the country is struggling to manufacture enough doses for its own population and are cautioning a pandemic-weary world to keep expectations in check.

“This should be the golden time for China to practice its vaccine diplomacy. The problem is, at the same time, China itself is facing a shortage,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So in terms of global access to vaccines, I don’t expect the situation to significantly improve in the coming two to three months.”

China’s vaccination campaign got off to a slow start, in part because the government prioritized exports and residents did not feel rushed to get vaccinated. The country is now speeding up its national vaccination campaign and aims to inoculate 40 percent of its 1.4 billion people by the end of June.

Sinopharm and Sinovac are producing about 12 million doses a day, just a little over the 10 million doses that China hopes to administer daily to meet the domestic target. The companies would have to produce roughly 500 million additional doses to meet the demands of other countries, according to a calculation of data provided by Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based consultancy focused on China’s impact on global health.

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