(Bloomberg) — China is participating in a World Health Organization-backed vaccine effort, stepping in to fill a void in global health leadership created by the Trump administration.
Beijing on Thursday joined the $18 billion Covax initiative that aspires to give lower-income countries the same access to vaccines as wealthier nations, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. Details of China’s commitment, including its amount of funding, weren’t immediately disclosed.
“Even when China is leading the world with several vaccines in advanced stages of R&D and with ample production capacity, it still decided to join Covax,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement Friday. “We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more capable countries will also join and support Covax.”
President Xi Jinping promised in May that vaccines developed by China would be made a global “public good” to be shared by all. In recent months, Beijing had been sending positive signals, suggesting it would take part in the Covax program, without committing outright.
The decision also could become another point of contention with the U.S., as tensions between the world’s two biggest economies spiral on fronts from trade to technology and human rights. The Trump administration has refused to join Covax, with a spokesman for the White House saying the U.S. wouldn’t “be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.”
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China’s participation is a big win for Covax, as the possibility of providing doses to even a fraction of China’s 1.4 billion people would boost critical mass, enhancing the alliance’s negotiating power.
Covax is led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the vaccine alliance Gavi. It currently has nine vaccines in development and nine under evaluation in its portfolio, with a goal to secure 2 billion doses by 2021.
For China, participation would provide a de facto insurance policy that allows it access to any successfully developed vaccine. Beijing could also provide manufacturing support for a successful vaccine, regardless of which country develops it.
The decision could also help the country’s image following widespread criticism from abroad over how it handled the initial outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 first emerged last year. China has been a front-runner in developing vaccines against the coronavirus. Nine of China’s vaccine candidates have entered clinical trials, and four of them got approval for final stage Phase III clinical trials in foreign countries.
(Updates with detail and context throughout)
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