China has officially joined the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX alliance to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines around the globe, ending speculation that it wants to supply them on its own to developing countries for its diplomatic agenda. According to the WHO, countries should join the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility) by September 18 but not later than October 9 with upfront payments.
“On October 8, China and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, signed an agreement, officially joining COVAX,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement on Friday.
“This is an important step China has taken to uphold the concept of a shared community of health for all and to honour its commitment to turn COVID-19 vaccines into a global public good,” she said, apparently refuting reports that China plans to distribute the vaccines to developing countries on its own ahead of developed countries.
WHO announced in August that “172 economies are now engaged in discussions to potentially participate in COVAX, a global initiative aimed at working with vaccine manufacturers to provide countries worldwide equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, once they are licensed and approved”.
China has already promised access and loans for potential vaccines to a number of lower and middle-income nations – a move the Chinese leadership may see as a better bet for its diplomatic agenda than joining the WHO-backed scheme, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on September 23.
Elaborating on China’s decision to join the global alliance, Hua said in her statement, “currently, the COVID-19 pandemic still poses a severe threat to the safety and health of people in all countries”.
“China continues to focus on ensuring that developing countries have equal access to appropriate, safe and effective vaccines. To that end, we have solemnly pledged to make vaccines developed and deployed by China a global public good, which will be provided to developing countries as a priority,” she said.
“Therefore, China has maintained close communication with COVAX with a positive attitude towards joining it. Even when China is leading the world with several vaccines in advanced stages of R&D and with ample production capacity, it still decided to join COVAX,” she said.
“We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more capable countries will also join and support COVAX. China will also strengthen vaccine cooperation with relevant countries through the COVAX network,” she said.
“China will continue to work together with COVAX partners and contribute its share to the global fight against the pandemic to safeguard all human beings’ safety and health,” she said.
China has roped in more than a dozen countries to conduct the final phase trials of Chinese-made experimental COVID-19 vaccines and even started vaccinating thousands of emergency workers, according to official media reports.
Yang Sheng, Deputy Director of the National Medical Products Administration’s drug registration bureau, said four China-developed COVID-19 vaccines have begun the final stage of human trials overseas after obtaining approval from foreign authorities.
China has been focusing on developing five types of vaccines, and each method has at least one entering clinical trials. In total, 11 vaccine candidates are in different stages of testing, Yang has been quoted by the official media earlier.
Zheng Zhongwei, head of China’s vaccine development task force said China’s annual capacity to make COVID-19 vaccines was expected to reach 610 million doses this year and one billion doses by 2021.
WHO said nine candidate vaccines are currently being evaluated for inclusion in the COVAX Facility.
They include two from China, two from the US, one from the Republic of Korea, one from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and one global, multi-manufacturer partnership.
Two of these are in Phase I trials, two are tech transfers and the remainder are at the discovery stage.
WHO said earlier that a collaboration between Serum Institute of India (SII), Gavi and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will ensure up to 100 million doses of AstraZeneca or Novavax’s candidate vaccines.
“If successful, (the vaccines) will be available to low- and middle-income economies through the COVAX Facility at just USD 3 per dose. The arrangement also provides an option to secure additional doses if COVAX sees a need for it,” a WHO announcement in August said.
(With PTI inputs)