Offering a cheap alternative to the developing nations against the more expensive and anticipated shortage of western-developed coronavirus vaccine would have been a diplomatic coup for Beijing in regaining the trust of the countries it lost following the advent of coronavirus. But China is struggling to get the world to trust its vaccines, a report published by Bloomberg said.
Even the closest of Beijing’s allies have displayed apprehensions in placing their faith in the vaccine produced by China. Pakistan, China’s all-weather ally and its eternal rental state, has long been staying afloat due to the Chinese largesse. China has invested about $70 billion in Pakistan for the development of roads, railways and other infrastructure. Even two of the Chinese clinical trials are underway in Pakistan.
However, according to the survey with the people of Karachi, the biggest city of Pakistan, China has failed to assure millions of people the efficacy of their vaccines. The respondents of the survey have not hesitated from raising their doubts and misgivings about the vaccines manufactured by the Chinese companies, underscoring the mistrust that residents of developing countries share against Beijing.
China thought that the vaccine diplomacy could be used to restore its trust with the poorer nations, propping up their ties with countries that had come under strain in the wake of the coronavirus and amidst the expected scarcity of the western-developed vaccines. However, the lack of data about the clinical trials of the Chinese vaccines and Beijing’s characteristic opacity has only added to fuel doubts surrounding the effectiveness of its produced vaccines.
The absence of global endorsement to the Chinese virus has also played a role in continuing apprehensions regarding vaccines backed by Beijing. So far only the United Arab Emirates and China itself have endorsed the vaccines for emergency use so far. Compared to this, the US and European companies have already published data on the safety and efficacy of their shots and have started to deploy them.
The raging distrust of the Chinese companies and the vaccines produced by them could act as a roadblock in Xi Jinping’s vision of restoring China to its ancient glory. For a long time now, China has sought to expand its influence over countries through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) and by providing financial assistance to poorer nations. China pumped millions of dollars on loans and projects to cultivate local elites and strengthen its dominance and influence.
However, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, with its roots being linked to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China has lost the primacy it had once enjoyed. The fact that the tests and personal protective equipment exported by China had turned out faulty had only compounded the growing mistrust among the nations for Beijing.
China’s ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’ faltering as nations and their population show little trust in Chinese vaccines
The first case of the coronavirus case is believed to have been reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan. During that time, China came under intense criticism from the international world for bungling up the initial response to contain the infection and being non-transparent and disingenuous in not informing the world about the characteristics and nature of the contagion. As a result, the virus quickly hopscotched national boundaries and turned into a global pandemic.
This resulted in the deterioration of the relationship between China and several western countries, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. On its part, China imposed an unprecedented lockdown to snuff out the infection from within its border. It also stopped reporting the number of daily coronavirus cases. Beijing launched a massive testing blitz to check infection among millions of its citizens but it was also aimed to underscore China’s success in handling the crisis.
Buoyed by its success in handling virus at home, China aggressively sparred with the western countries from the origins of the coronavirus to the crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The persistent trouble caused by the pandemic resulted in the US hardening its stance against China, including its efforts in stopping countries from from adopting the next-generation communications technology of China’s Huawei Technologies Co.
For Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, vaccine development and distribution is another frontier that would establish China as a superior country as compared to the ‘chaotic’ democracies in the west. However, many suspect that China’s push for the vaccine may be aimed at striking a bargain with the poorer countries by providing them with Chinese-made vaccine in return for the country’s commitment to using Huawei 5G telecommunication lines.
China has also launched a global effort to make the efficacy and safety of its vaccine known. It had invited representatives of 50 African countries to a Sinopharm Group Co. facility in October, in a bid to showcase its progress in developing the shots against coronavirus. Responding to Bloomberg’s question, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Chinese companies developing vaccines strictly comply with the law and clinical trials in the first two phases showed the shots were safe and effective.
What benefits China is the fact that a large number of countries in the world do not have facilities to store western-developed vaccines. The vaccine that is manufactured by Pfizer requires to be stored at -70 degree Celsius. The poorer and developing nations lack the infrastructure that is needed to stockpile the vaccine. Besides, the limited quantity of the shots developed by the European and the American companies also benefits China’s vaccine candidates, as they are expected to be limited and in their absence, poorer nations will have no option but to turn to China for inoculating their population.
Surveys in Brazil and Kenya show people do not perceive all approved vaccines equal
However, despite repeated assurance by the Chinese authorities about the efficacy of their vaccines, nations and their population remain sceptical of the vaccines supplied by China. Even though Brazil is one of the countries where Chinese vaccine candidates are undergoing clinical trials, the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked “Made in China” and said that he wouldn’t buy vaccines from China.
“We won’t buy it from China, it’s my decision,” Bolsonaro said in a radio interview in October. “It’s a matter of credibility — there are other vaccines that are more trustworthy.” However, the Brazilian government later back-pedalled on his statement. On December 21, Joao Doria, governor of Sao Paulo said that it would receive 5.5 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine within days.
Yet, a survey conducted by a polling institute Datafolha earlier in the month showed that half of Brazilians said that they would not take the Sinovac-Butantan shot, the highest refusal rate among all the vaccines. Some 36% of respondents said they’d also reject a Russian vaccine, while 23% said they wouldn’t take a U.S. shot.
A survey conducted in Kenya showed that people did not perceive all vaccines equally. Africa-focused polling company TIFA Research found that respondents were least likely to take vaccines made in China and Russia, preferring vaccines from the U.K. or the U.S.
Global leaders wary of backlash over passing substandard coronavirus vaccine
For global leaders whose countries have been battered by the coronavirus outbreak, the selection of vaccine candidate is a slippery slope. They are expectedly cautious in not inviting the public wrath over approving a second-rate coronavirus vaccine. After being racked by the menace of COVID-19, these leaders do not want their population to believe that they have compromised with their safety by allowing and approving substandard vaccines.
Yet, some international leaders have openly endorsed the inoculation process to quell doubts regarding the coronavirus vaccine. The President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo said that he will be the first one to be vaccinated in the country. Indonesia has ordered 125.5 million doses from Sinovac, as well as 30 million from Maryland-based Novavax Inc. and is developing 57.6 million of its own shots. It’s also seeking doses from Covax, AstraZeneca and Pfizer.
The Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, received the Sinopharm vaccine on Nov. 3. “We wish everyone safety and great health, and we are proud of our teams who have worked relentlessly to make the vaccine available in the UAE,” he wrote on Twitter along with a photo of him receiving the vaccine.
However, the official endorsement by the leaders might not be enough to instil confidence among people for a vaccine if it receives approval. Scepticism rages unabated as people view vaccines made in China with suspicion and distrust. According to Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong, transparency is needed to support more general public acceptance of the Covid-19 vaccines. And the biggest inadequacy in anything concerning China is transparency.