Three countries totally banked on Chinese vaccine, and cases are spiking

Beijing is banking on vaccine diplomacy for global pre-eminence; doubts on the efficacy of the shots may prove a blackmark

COVID-19
While inoculating its own billions, China also rolled out a vaccine diplomacy programme designed to help it make friends globally

Even as China got praise from across the world for having administered one billion COVID vaccines within its shores, there is rising scrutiny on its vaccine exports.

A New York Times report said that three nations that banked most on China for COVID vaccines — Mongolia, Bahrain and the Seychelles — are struggling with a surge of cases. The three nations had hoped to make their territories COVID-free and revive their economies, for which they had depended — in a large way — on Chinese vaccines. What they ended up getting was an unexplained jump in number of cases, said the NYT report.

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For China, singled out for blame  for triggering the coronavirus pandemic by several global powers — tacitly or explicitly — the vaccine was a viable way out. While inoculating its own billions, Beijing also rolled out a vaccine diplomacy programme that was designed to help it make friends by offering the jab in huge numbers.

‘Global public good’

Last year, the country it said it would offer the world a shot that would be safe and effective against the virus. President Xi Jinping had claimed the Chinese shot would be easy to store and transport, and would deliver a “global public good.”

Also read: What Wuhan scientists’ symptoms could tell us about COVID origins

Today, more than 90 nations have opted for the Chinese vaccines. Unlike India, whose vaccine diplomacy, in part, landed it in a vaccine scarcity for its own masses, China appeared to have pulled it off. Vaccines from two Chinese pharma firms, Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech, are being exported worldwide.

Now, the effectiveness appears to be a huge question mark, particularly against the new variants, said NYT. All things equal, how quickly a country emerges from the contagion would largely hinge on which vaccine candidate its government opts for, it added.

Citing data from Our World in Data, the report went on to say that in the Seychelles, Chile, Bahrain and Mongolia, up to 68% of the populations are fully vaccinated. Yet, these four were ranked among the nations with the worst COVID outbreaks in recent weeks, it said. By coincidence or otherwise, the four nations were mostly using Chinese vaccines against COVID.

On the other hand, the US has fully inoculated just 45% of its people, yet its cases have fallen 94% over six months, said the report. The US uses vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. It has not cleared AstraZeneca’s candidate over certain concerns.

Question of efficacy

While the vaccines of both Sinovac and Sinopharm were granted emergency use authorisation by the WHO, the efficacy of the Sinovac candidate, at 51%, just about exceeds the WHO’s 50% efficacy threshold for COVID vaccines, said a Forbes report. “And a lack of public clinical data to back up manufacturers’ often inconsistent claims hampers public acceptance of the vaccine,” it added.

“If the vaccines are sufficiently good, we should not see this pattern,” said Jin Dongyan, a virus expert at the University of Hong Kong, in the NYT report. “The Chinese have a responsibility to remedy this.”

The NYT report said the ineffectiveness of Chinese vaccines could have more far-reaching consequences, such as creating greater disparities globally.  “Three types of countries emerge from the pandemic — the wealthy nations that used their resources to secure Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots, the poorer countries that are far away from immunising a majority of citizens, and then those that are fully inoculated but only partly protected,” it said.

Never-ending woes

For those that banked on Chinese vaccines, including China itself, the pandemic may stretch into a much longer period than the rest. This could translate into repeated lockdowns, tests and other curbs, plus an unending blow to the economies. Vaccine hesitancy could go up since people would be unconvinced about its effectiveness, said the report.

While no vaccine fully prevents infection, the “relatively low efficacy rates of Chinese shots have been identified as a possible cause of the recent outbreaks”, it added.

China’s Foreign Ministry has denied any correlation between its homegrown vaccines and the outbreaks elsewhere in the world. “Relevant reports and data also show that many countries that use Chinese-made vaccines have expressed that they are safe and reliable, and have played a good role in their epidemic prevention efforts,” it said.

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