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China’s Time – Covid-19 allows the Chinese biotech company BGI to win in Africa

China’s Time – Covid-19 allows the Chinese biotech company BGI to win in Africa

Saron Tamerat
  • The Coronavirus pandemic has enabled China to further strengthen diplomatic and business ties with Africa
  • Concerns over the quality of Chinese PPE persist

As the number of Covid-19 cases climbs across parts of the African continent China has been using this opportunity to show that it stands in solidarity with Africa through donations of PPE and test kits. Countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Senegal have been on the receiving end of China’s medical aid – whether through PPE, test kit, or ventilator donations. And it’s not only the Chinese government who is sending all these donations – a handful of organisations such as Tencent and the Jack Ma Foundation have all stretched their arms to help the African continent fight against Covid-19.

“Indeed, Covid-19 pandemic has only amplified medical cooperation between China and Africa,” said Cavince Adhere, a Kenyan international relations researcher, ahead of China’s Medical Workers’ Day and World Humanitarian Day 2020, which was held on August 19. And China is taking advantage of the situation to further stake its claims on being Africa’s biggest partner. 

“China’s BGI is winning big in Ethiopia”

Chinese biotech company BGI has won a 1.5 million Covid-19 test kit order from Ethiopia which will be manufactured at the company’s newly built factory in the East African country. The factory, which was opened earlier this month is touted as the first Covid-19 testing production facility to ever be built in Ethiopia. According to Xinhua News, the facility will be able to make 6-8 million tests in a year and can increase the nation’s annual capacity to up to 10 million depending on local demand. BGI also hopes to expand its supplies into other African Countries. BGI Group’s unit BGI Genomics had previously stated it supplied over 35 million coronavirus testing kits overseas and built 58 labs in 18 countries as of June 30.

COVID-19 has opened up new doors for this Chinese gene giant with the company becoming one of the go-to manufacturers of test kits around the world. The company has been getting a major foothold in many countries through the delivery of mass coronavirus test kits and the company reporting a rise in profits in the first half of 2020 due to strong demand for its Covid-19 test kits.

“Not everyone is welcoming”

Many are becoming wary of donations coming from China due to claims that the PPE is contaminated – yet no evidence seems to exist to support this claim. There are further claims that defective equipment is coming from China in a bid to further its influence.

 The Doctors’ Association in Nigeria threatened to “reconsider” their participation in the fight against COVID-19 if the government’s invite to a Chinese medical team was not swiftly withdrawn.  While in Kenya, prominent activist Donald B Kipkorir tweeted:

“China normally sends its highest quality products to Europe & the US then its inferior ones to Africa … The Covid-19 Test Kits it sent to Europe have been found 80% defective and Europe has returned them … So, what does it say about the kit Jack Ma gave us? 100% or 120% defective?”

Kenyan Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe has said that Kenya would stop importing PPE from China since they do not meet the Kenyan Bureau of Standards quality tests.  The Cabinet Secretary said “regarding the issue of masks that was supposedly raised by Kenya Bureau of Standards… I did take myself to KEBS, I took some Chinese PPE and they failed the test.”

During a daily press briefing on Covid-19 in Kenya Kagwe stated “So forthwith we have not imported any Chinese products because Kenyan products are good enough if not better than those from elsewhere.”.

African nations are not the only countries that have rejected Chinese-made PPE. Several European countries have also said that they will no longer use PPE produced in China. A large number of test kits and medical masks have been found to not meet standards, or are defective according to authorities in Spain, Turkey, and the Netherlands.

And all these high-profile rejections of Chinese made PPE is expected to become a setback to China’s ambition of “Coronavirus Diplomacy” – if it hasn’t already. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, and other U.S. stakeholders continue to be amongst the loudest in voicing these concerns, claiming that China’s Covid-19 assistance to Africa isn’t up to international standards.

Yet Chen Songheng, General Manager of BGI Ethiopia maintains that the company will make a positive difference. “We would like to provide localised production in Ethiopia that can also benefit all African countries. We aim to make affordable artificial test kits to all African countries to help them in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic,” but how they plan to meet the demands across all 54 nations and quell the concerns many have about the standards of Chinese made test kits is yet to be seen.

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