China is still most likely months away from mass producing a vaccine that is safe for public use. But the country is using the prospect of the drug’s discovery in a charm offensive aimed at repairing damaged ties and bringing friends closer in regions China deems vital to its interests.
Latin American and Caribbean nations will receive loans to buy the medicine, and Bangladesh will get over 100,000 free doses from a Chinese company.
In the Philippines, where China is competing with the United States for influence, President Rodrigo Duterte told lawmakers in July that he had “made a plea” to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for help with vaccines. He also said he would not confront China over its claims to the South China Sea.
A day later, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said China was willing to give the Philippines priority access to a vaccine.
China’s vaccine pledges, on top of earlier shipments of masks and ventilators around the world, help it project itself as a responsible player and could also help it push back against accusations that the ruling Communist Party should be held accountable for its initial missteps when the coronavirus first emerged in China in December.
The Trump administration has roundly attacked Beijing over its handling of the virus crisis, as well as over accusations that Chinese-directed hackers have tried to steal vaccine research to gain an edge. The Justice Department indicted two Chinese suspects accused of targeting pharmaceutical companies in July.
China is a leader in the global race for a Covid-19 vaccine, and four out of the eight late phase clinical trials are for Chinese vaccines. The country began testing experimental vaccines on soldiers and employees of state-owned companies in July, and the testing has quietly expanded to include health care and aviation workers. Chinese vaccine makers have built factories that can produce hundreds of thousands of doses.
The United States has three vaccine candidates in late-stage trials, with Pfizer saying it could apply for emergency approval as early as October and Moderna saying it hopes to have a vaccine by the end of the year. AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company that received U.S. government funding to develop its vaccine, paused its late-stage global trials this week because of a serious suspected adverse reaction in a participant.
But Chinese vaccine companies that have gone abroad to conduct clinical trials have also generated controversy amid fears that local residents are being treated like guinea pigs. And some political experts worry about the leverage that China could wield over countries that accept vaccines.
“Should we be suspicious, or should we be grateful?” asked Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an academic at Universitas Islam Indonesia, who researches China’s foreign policy in Indonesia.