A staff member displays samples of a Covid-19 inactivated vaccine at Sinovac Biotech in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua / Facebook / Zhang Yuwei

Chinese state media says a “growing list of countries” are signing up to cooperate with Chinese drugmakers over Covid vaccines.

It comes as Beijing is setting aside quotas from initial batches from SinoPharm and other state-owned and private enterprises for donations or sales at nominal charges to developing countries from Asia to Africa. 

Xinhua says China “feels called to” assume a leading role, in the absence of the United States after it opted out of the World Health Organization, in deciding global recipients of vaccines and other medical resources in the fight against the virus.  

The official news agency on Wednesday syndicated a Reuters report earlier this week about the Brazilian Health Ministry’s plan to source vaccines from global suppliers including Beijing-based Sinovac. 

Xinhua quoted Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria as saying that Brazil could buy up to 46 million doses of CoronaVac, jointly developed by Sinovac and the Sao Paulo-based Instituto Butantan, for inoculation programs starting from January.

Researchers with the institute said 9,000 participants in the inactivated vaccine’s final-stage human trials in the country displayed “no severe side effects.”

But an AFP report on Thursday claimed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had “intervened and shot down” plans to buy vaccines. The report added that the far-right, populist president had come under pressure from hardline supporters to ban what one called the “Chinese dictatorship’s vaccine.”

Sinovac did not respond to e-mailed inquiries about the Brazilian President’s reported cancelation. 

In the meantime, Taiwanese papers including the China Times said Beijing’s plan to donate half a million doses to the self-ruled island by the year’s end had been put on ice.

The donations were to be delivered via the Beijing-friendly opposition party Kuomintang and the island’s incumbent mayors and county magistrates who are KMT members. The plan stalled after KMT bigwigs shunned a cross-strait exchange forum last month on the mainland. 

Taiwan’s Health Ministry said this week that the island’s exemplary work that had kept the virus in check meant mass vaccination for its residents was not urgent and that no Chinese vaccines would be administered without a thorough assessment of their safety and efficacy. Taiwan’s total caseload, 544 as of Thursday, is among the lowest across Asia. 

Chinese drugmaker SinoPharm says the final-stage trials of its inactivated vaccine are going well. Photo: Xinhua

Thai authorities are also yet to officially respond to Beijing’s offer of vaccines after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok this month. Wang recommitted Beijing to vaccine donations as well as transfer of formulas after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang mooted the idea of vaccine cooperation in August when meeting via video counterparts from countries along the Mekong river.

The junta leader, however, has not announced detailed plans for mass procurement of foreign vaccines. 

Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and the Philippines have also been assured of priority by Wang and Chinese ambassadors. 

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte is the only foreign head of state who has openly asked Beijing for vaccines, a call that has been well-heeded by the Chinese embassy and Wang, who, during a meeting with his Filipino counterpart in Yunnan earlier this month, pledged “ample and stable” supplies. But Duterte is not pinning all the hope on Beijing’s goodwill, as he has also made similar calls for Russian vaccines. 

A staff member works at a factory built to produce a Covid-19 vaccine at Sinovac, one of the 11 Chinese companies approved to carry out clinical trials. Photo: Wang Zhao/AFP

In Hong Kong, the announcement of the government’s preliminary scheme to source vaccines from across global suppliers, including reputedly from SinoPharm and Sinovac, has provoked widespread blowback.

Opposition lawmakers and some medical professionals have criticized officials for their plan to fast-track the city’s scrupulous evaluation and approval procedures to buy Chinese vaccines that may not yet be ready.

The only city across the Greater China Region that is still in the grip of the respiratory pathogen, Hong Kong reports about a dozen new patients each day, though local infections have started to taper off from a peak of hundreds of cases a day in July and August. 

The city’s Health Minister Sophia Chan said Hong Kong had joined the WHO-led international Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), which could provide vaccines to 35% of Hongkongers by the end of 2021 at the latest.

This means a big shortfall between the supply and the city’s goal of procuring vaccines to cover at least twice the city’s population of 7.5 million, in case one of the vaccines cannot be successfully manufactured. 

She said, on top of the COVAX participation, another part of the city’s “two-pronged procurement strategy” was to buy vaccines from mainland China.

The city’s government said, “We foresee that global competition will be very keen once an efficacious vaccine emerges. Hong Kong needs to take early action to reserve potential vaccines for our population.

“Given that the COVAX Facility would only serve a part of our population and the vaccines may only be delivered by end 2021, the government will also pursue additional supplies through advance purchase agreements with individual vaccine developers in other places including mainland China.”

But the opposition and the city’s Medical Council have threatened to scupper any funding proposals for the administration of vaccines if concerns over the origins of these drugs and their safety cannot be duly addressed.

Lam Ching-choi, a member of the Hong Kong government’s Executive Council, told the China News Service that pre-ordering candidate vaccines from drugmakers could be like buying futures on a stock market and Chinese firms could offer the safest bets with their headstart in vaccine trials.

But he admitted that when Beijing’s help with free city-wide virus testing for all residents in August and September only saw lukewarm turnout, the city may not get priority by Beijing for vaccines as mainland provinces and municipalities roll out their inoculation programs. 

China also joined the COVAX alliance this month. Seth Berkley, a leader of the program, said two of the nine candidate vaccines to be assessed and distributed by COVAX were from China. 

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