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Clouds over China's ‘vaccine diplomacy’ as countries using Chinese COVID-19 jabs face outbreaks

China prioritised sending its vaccine doses to developing nations with an aim to win influence and possibly cut commercial deals. But with the jabs' efficacy under question, China's ‘vaccine diplomacy’ may be taking a hit

June 23, 2021 / 11:34 AM IST
A worker unwraps containers carrying a batch of China's Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine at the Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador on May 18, 2021 (Image: Reuters/Jose Cabezas)

A worker unwraps containers carrying a batch of China's Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine at the Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador on May 18, 2021 (Image: Reuters/Jose Cabezas)

Several countries that administered doses of COVID-19 vaccines developed by Chinese companies have reported a surge in novel coronavirus infections.

At a time when the United States and the West moved slowly to donate doses to other countries, the Chinese government prioritised sending vaccines to developing nations. The aim behind the People’s Republic of China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ was to have greater influence over developing nations and possibly to secure commercial deals.

As recently as June 20, 1.5 million doses of the China’s Sinovac vaccine reached Pakistan amid shortage of jabs in the South Asian country. Bangladesh also recently signed a deal with China to buy the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine.

However, China’s ambitious plans may have taken a beating after many of these beneficiary countries reported a spike in coronavirus infections.

On June 20, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) announced that over one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered across the mainland. The country had accelerated the pace of free inoculations drive in late March. However, authorities did not reveal how many people had been fully vaccinated.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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A total of 21 COVID-19 vaccines have entered clinical trials in China so far. Seven of these have been granted conditional marketing authorisation or emergency use authorisation (EUA).

The main Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines being delivered on a large scale are CoronaVac, developed by Sinovac; Convidecia, developed by CanSino Biologics; and Sinopharm’s BBIBP-CorV.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has granted emergency approval to just two of these vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac, which China has supplied and exported to several countries.

CoronaVac has been granted EUA in Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey and Ukraine, among others. Convidecia has received emergency use nods from authorities in Argentina, Chile and Moldova, among others.

Sinopharm’s BBIBP-CorV has received full use approval in Bahrain, Seychelles and United Arab Emirates (UAE), and emergency use authorisation in 72 other countries including Afghanistan, Maldives, Mauritius, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Additionally, a many low- and middle-income countries are eligible to receive doses of vaccines like CoronaVac under the COVAX programme.

COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker: All you need to know about manufacturing and pricing

The Contrast

According to Our World in Data, a platform compiling vaccination numbers from around the globe, 50 to 68 percent of the population in the Seychelles, Chile, Bahrain and Mongolia have been fully inoculated. That number is higher than that of the United States.

All four countries largely used Chinese vaccines. Yet, they rank among the top 15 nations (Seychelles and Mongolia are ranked no. 1 and 2, respectively) with the worst COVID-19 outbreaks over the past week, according to data from The New York Times. This assessment is based on cases per one lakh population.

Seychelles, where a sizeable chunk of the population received a Chinese-made vaccine, reported 145 COVID-19 cases per one lakh population over the last seven days. The number was 66 for Mongolia. In comparison, India's COVID-19 infections per one lakh people stood at four, despite a large section of the population not having received even the first dose.

In comparison, Israel which has given at least one dose to a lesser number of people than Seychelles, but used American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s vaccine has recorded less than one case per one lakh people over the past seven days.

While scientists still do not know why some countries with high vaccination rates are witnessing outbreaks, new coronavirus variants and easing of restrictions too early may have also contributed to spike in cases. Plus, most Chinese pharma firm have not released much of the clinical trial data prove how well their shots work.

The contrast in infection rates and questions over jab efficacy may push developing countries turning to the West for more doses instead of China.

Follow Moneycontrol’s full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here
Moneycontrol News
first published: Jun 23, 2021 11:34 am

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