PRC-run COVID-19 vaccine trials raise new debt-entrapment, human rights concerns
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to conduct so-called vaccine diplomacy by extending loans and access to promised COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries in exchange for participation in large-scale trials.
In late July 2020, for example, the PRC announced a U.S. $1 billion loan to Latin American and Caribbean countries to pay for access to a Chinese-made vaccine, the Independent newspaper reported.
The practice is raising new concerns about debt entrapment and medical ethics. Some analysts contend that it’s another PRC effort to influence and control countries through unviable infrastructure loans. Such “priority loans” offered for a coronavirus vaccine would increase vulnerable nations’ indebtedness to the PRC, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper.
Others wonder whether the PRC is using developing populations as experimental subjects without adequate safety controls.
“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease official, said in July 31 congressional testimony, Agence France-Presse reported. “Claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing, I think, is problematic at best.”
Vaccines usually require years of research and testing before reaching clinical trials, but scientists are striving to produce a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine by 2021. Through mid-August 2020, there were more than 165 vaccines in various stages of development, with 31 in human trials, The New York Times newspaper reported.
Russia was the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, branded Sputnik V for foreign markets. Russia claims it will have two vaccines ready by October 2020 but has not released any scientific evidence regarding their safety or effectiveness, according to Agence France-Presse.
Countries often have differing standards for clinical trials, which is further complicating the issue. Experts also worry that adequate protections are not in place to mitigate risks.
The PRC has previously produced faulty vaccines and questionable research data. For example, a string of recent safety scandals there involved substandard and outdated vaccines sold and distributed for child immunizations by state-run companies, such as the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products Co. and Changchun Changsheng, which sparked waves of protests in China by parents whose children had been administered the faulty vaccines.
“There certainly will be legitimate concerns, given the history that we’ve seen with vaccine-related scandals in China,” Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told the South China Morning Post.
Many emerging countries, especially those with heavy case burdens, feel pressure to participate in clinical trials so they are not denied access to the first vaccines. Mexico has agreed to participate in two clinical trials of vaccines made by the Chinese companies CanSino Biologics and Walvax Biotechnology.
As of August 18, 2020, Mexico had reported more than 57,000 COVID-19 deaths, placing it third worldwide in number of deaths and 13th on a per capita basis, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.
The Chinese company Sinovac Biotech has started clinical trials in Indonesia for CoronaVac, pictured, which uses an inactivated form of the virus, The Associated Press (AP) reported. Under the deal, Indonesia recruited more than 1,600 volunteers for the vaccine trial.
Sinovac plans similar trials in Bangladesh, Brazil and India, AP reported.
Although researchers generally believe the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, questions remain as to how it emerged and whether negligence or malfeasance was involved. The lingering questions also cast aspersions on the PRC’s vaccine diplomacy. At a minimum, it’s a campaign to whitewash the PRC’s culpability for the pandemic, some critics contend.
“If China plays ‘vaccine diplomacy,’ this is going to help project China’s soft power,” Huang told the South China Morning Post.