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PRC eyes image upgrade as vaccine quest intensifies


The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) late-stage decision to join a vaccine distribution alliance reflects an attempt to make over its image after failing to contain the spread of COVID-19, experts contend.

The PRC waited until October 9, 2020, to join COVAX, a U.S. $18 billion World Health Organization (WHO) effort to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to developing nations. The decision came three weeks after the deadline to join COVAX and after a barrage of negative news about the PRC’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Analysts viewed Beijing’s decision as “China’s attempt at an image makeover — both at home and in the world,” the online magazine The Diplomat reported. Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct professor at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong, concurred. “China needs more friends,” Kato told Bloomberg. “That’s why China thinks it needs to take a clearer message to engage internationally.”

The move came after a Pew Research Center survey of more than 14,000 people in 14 countries revealed that “the negative views of the people in several countries towards China deepened during the pandemic.”

COVAX leaders reveled in the PRC’s decision, saying the prospect of providing vaccines to even a fraction of China’s 1.4 billion people enhances the alliance’s negotiating power with drugmakers. The alliance has nine vaccines in development, including one each from the PRC and Hong Kong. Nine others are under consideration.

However, those vaccines represent only a fraction of the global effort. Researchers are testing 50 vaccines in clinical trials on humans, and at least 87 preclinical vaccines are being tested on animals, according to The New York Times newspaper.

The United States opted out of the WHO alliance over concerns that the PRC unduly influences the health body and that the WHO was complicit in the PRC’s lack of transparency during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Infectious disease officials said the U.S. is unlikely to use vaccines from the PRC due to a lack of regulatory transparency.

History provides cause for pause. Although the PRC is one of the world’s largest vaccine producers, its products are mostly made for domestic use. That’s because the small manufacturers that dominate its pharmaceutical sector have trouble meeting international regulations, according to an August 2020 Rand Corp. analysis. Of the 5,300 to 7,000 local drugmakers in the PRC, only 40 meet the WHO’s manufacturing requirements for dissemination to international agencies.

A lack of oversight has also stirred controversy. A Chinese manufacturer was hit with a U.S. $1.3 billion fine and had its license revoked in October 2018 for distributing faulty rabies vaccines. Chinese state media said Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology created defective vaccines by mixing fluids from different and sometimes expired batches before falsifying production dates, according to Time magazine. Another regulator found that the same company had distributed 500,000 substandard doses of DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccines for humans.

Against that backdrop, experts doubt the scientific rigor behind the PRC’s COVID-19 vaccine claims. China National Biotec Group Co., for example, said it vaccinated hundreds of thousands of people without any displaying adverse side effects.

“Any statement that says when you vaccinated over 100,000 people and see no serious or severe effects cannot be true,” William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School researcher, told Bloomberg. “If they want their vaccines to receive international credibility, they’ve got to be forthcoming.”

As competition to produce a vaccine heats up, Indo-Pacific leaders are lining up to reserve supplies. India is hosting trials for a Russian vaccine while working on three vaccine candidates of its own, the BBC reported.

Japan made agreements with British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and U.S.-based Pfizer Inc. to procure 120 million doses. Japan also is negotiating with Moderna Inc., a U.S. company, for an additional 40 million doses. Australia also has a deal with AstraZeneca, and South Korea is reviewing the same vaccine for fast-track approval, Reuters reported.

Scientists at Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School are developing a vaccine in concert with U.S. drugmaker Arcturus Therapeutics.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has become a testing ground for Chinese vaccines. China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. is working with Indonesia’s Bio Farma to produce and distribute a coronavirus vaccine. (Pictured: A worker checks syringes of a coronavirus vaccine at a Sinovac production line in Beijing.)
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte said Chinese and Russian vaccines will be given priority, signaling a burgeoning competition between the countries.

The PRC has vaccine links to 100 countries by promising them supply priority, testing or manufacturing equipment or loans to buy vaccines, Bloomberg reported. Those discussions include Latin American countries, where Russia is also making inroads.

However, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro recently vetoed a deal for 46 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine, saying he didn’t trust it.

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