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What’s Up With: Africa, China & COVAX

Inès Forman
  • Xi Jinping promised to prioritise African countries when a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine becomes ready
  • China recently joined the COVAX taskforce
  • What does this development mean for African countries' access to a Covid-19 vaccine?

What’s Up With: China & COVAX 

Covid-19 has undoubtedly become 2020’s biggest story. But the huge amount of stories and information available makes it difficult to pinpoint what is actually worth knowing in order to keep up with the unfolding of the crisis. In the past few weeks, you might have read headlines such as “China finally decided to join COVAX”. This occurrence stayed relatively under the radar in African countries and was sparingly covered by mainstream African media sources. 

But what is COVAX and why should we care that China is joining it?

What is COVAX?

COVAX is the US$18 billion World Health Organization-backed global initiative to develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine. It is co-led by the WHO itself, Gavi (the public-private Vaccine Alliance) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) and claims that its main focus is equitable access to a Covid-19 vaccine, especially for developing nations. It was joined by more than 180 countries, many of them located on the African continent. The COVAX alliance aims at vaccinating up to 20% of each participating country’s high risk population and frontline healthcare workers once one or several of their vaccines are approved. Hailed as unique, COVAX affirms that it “has the world’s largest and most diverse portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, and as such represents the world’s best hope of bringing the acute phase of this pandemic to a swift end.”

Why did China join the COVAX task force? 

When considering the Chinese government’s decision to join COVAX, it appears that the main factors to have prompted this move are related to the country’s public image, public relations and overall diplomatic endeavours.

China’s public image took a big hit this year. From allegations of a cover-up during the early stages of the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan in December 2019, its continuing human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and aggressive rhetoric towards Taiwan, China faced a great popularity blow on the global stage. Besides, news of racism and mass evictions of Africans in Guangzhou was yet another blow to China’s reputation among African communities. Joining COVAX, and therefore showing the country’s willingness to commit significant resources to benefit the greater good, allows it to counteract all this negative publicity.

Additionally, since U.S. President Donald Trump rebuked the WHO and spurned COVAX, joining the initiative is also a very opportunistic move for China. Swiftly filling leadership gaps wherever the U.S. declined to assume such a role enables China to assert its own claim to leadership on the global stage.

The last, yet not least, critical factor that seems to have spurred China on to join COVAX is the country’s desire to reinforce the credibility of the future Chinese-manufactured vaccines. As  Xiaoqing Lu Boynton, a consultant at Albright Stonebridge Group focusing on healthcare issues argues: “The potential role for Chinese vaccines manufacturers to play in the global rollout under Covax will not only boost the domestic industry, but also help add much-needed credibility to Chinese-developed vaccines”. Awareness that the future Chinese vaccines will have to comply with the WHO’s standards builds trust in the quality of these Chinese-manufactured products. This is crucial for China since the country’s manufacturing standards often come under international scrutiny. China’s adherence to the COVAX initiative is thus expected to dramatically improve China’s image and “soft power” on the global stage and, as a consequence, China’s economic status.

Therefore, diplomatically and financially, China’s decision to join COVAX proves to be very savvy.

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Why should this matter to us?

Despite their well-meaning rhetoric about making future vaccines accessible to everyone, several of the world’s wealthier nations have entered a race for access to Covid-19 vaccines. The U.S. and the UK, for instance, are reported to have already secured deals with pharmaceutical companies in order to ensure prior access to a vaccine for their populations. Many observers believe that these developments might leave African countries at the end of the line, vulnerable to Covid-19 outbreaks. In fact most African countries are relying solely on COVAX in order to secure access to vaccines.

In May, China’s president Xi Jinping announced that a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine would become a “global public good” once available. Xi stressed that this move “will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries”. Later this year, in June, the Chinese leader addressed African countries’ representatives at the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against Covid-19 pledging that “once the development of and deployment of a Covid-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit”. 

However, the Chinese government failed to provide any explanation or take concrete steps in order to make this statement practically feasible other than negotiating bilateral agreements with individual countries. China’s belated decision, on October 9, to join the COVAX initiative thus provides it with tangible means and infrastructure through which Xi’s ambitious promise to African countries can realistically be rolled out, most notably the WHO’s ample experience in widespread immunisation and disease surveillance.

Whether or not African nations will truly benefit equitably from China’s involvement in COVAX remains to be seen. Yet, China’s move is definitely an encouraging sign that the country’s promises regarding Covid-19 vaccines just might be realised.

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