China joins global vaccine alliance, filling “leadership vacuum” left by Trump

Patrick
Enlarge / Chinese President Xi Jinping learns about the progress on a COVID-19 vaccine during his visit to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing on March 2, 2020.

China has now signed on to a massive, global alliance to develop and equitably distribute a coronavirus vaccine—putting the United States’ absence from the pact into yet sharper relief.

With its late entry announced Friday, China joins around 170 other countries in the pact, called the COVAX Facility. The effort is being spearheaded by the World Health Organization and co-led along with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

COVAX is designed to pool resources to help develop a vaccine and bring it to market globally. Once at that point, the alliance will help ensure all participating countries have access to whichever vaccine candidate(s) prove successful, regardless of where it was developed. It will also provide financial assistance to lower-income countries to access the vaccine. So far, at least 77 high-income countries (including China) have signed on, as well as 92 low- and middle-income countries.

COVAX aims to distribute two billion doses of a vaccine against the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, by the end of 2021. Though many questions about distribution and access remain, leaders have released a rough two-phase plan for vaccine distribution, which will start based on each country’s population size and then, in the second phase, strategically weigh health needs and disease spread in individual countries or regions.

Stepping in

The financing for the enormous plan is still shaky, and the terms of China’s involvement are unclear. But the entry of China may brighten the outlook. China has the second largest economy in the world, and it is also developing four of the 10 vaccine candidates already in the final stages of clinical trials.

“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,” government spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

The US is not among the high-income countries participating in COVAX. Instead, it remains in the ranks with Russia as the top economies not involved. In its refusal to participate, the Trump administration cited its decision to shun the World Health Organization amid the global health crisis. Experts were quick to call the move “short-sighted” and “self-defeating.”

The absence of the US may be a boon for China, Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia, told the AP. “China joining COVAX serves a dual purpose of filling the leadership vacuum left by the United States in terms of global public health, and in terms of securing a future vaccine for its population,” she said.

Nevertheless, GAVI CEO Seth Berkley celebrated China’s entry, writing in a Friday morning tweet: “Delighted to welcome China to the #COVAX Facility! This announcement gives even more momentum to our mission to ensure future #COVID19 vaccines are distributed equitably because no one is safe until everyone is safe. #OneWorldProtected”



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