China began 2020 being widely blamed for being the origin of the novel coronavirus that proceeded to infect more than a tenth of the whole globe. Though it successfully managed to navigate around that criticism through its wildly successful response to coronavirus, this success didn’t win it too many plaudits with the world due to its failure to export that response, or even care much about taking a leading role in fighting coronavirus around the world prior to the development of its vaccines. What will ultimately decide world opinion on China’s relationship to the greatest world crisis of our time will not, however, be the origin of the virus or its successful domestic response, but its vaccine diplomacy around the world.
China has three vaccines it plans to widely export: BBIBP-CorV, made by Sinopharm, CoronaVac, made by Sinovac, and Convidicea, made by CanSino Biologics. The first two rely on the killed virus method of vaccine design, and have similar efficacy (~78%), lower than Germany’s and America’s mRNA vaccines (~90-95%), while the last relies on an adenovirus vector similar to the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines, but, unlike these latter two, is injected in only one dose. China has some of the largest vaccine production facilities anywhere in the world. Due to its containment of the coronavirus crisis at home, it can, unlike Russia, safely afford to export vaccines without worrying about this affecting its local death toll. China’s great production capacity may well be able to help its neighbor Russia satisfy its own dire vaccine needs, as well as help China’s ability to export its own domestically designed vaccines by supplying it with the German-designed Pfizer vaccine.
The Sinopharm vaccine has already been approved in China and in several Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan -hardly a core partner of China. The UAE, the second most vaccinated country on Earth, as well as Bahrain, the third, rely primarily on the Sinopharm vaccine (though the Pfizer vaccine is also used in both). Chinese vaccines will be a vital part of the coronavirus response in hard-hit Indonesia -again, hardly a core partner of China. 125.5 million doses of Sinovac have been ordered, as well as 60 million Sinopharm, 50 million AstraZeneca, 50 million Pfizer, and 20 million from CanSino Biologics, but only 3 million doses of any vaccine have arrived so far in Indonesia, and only of CoronaVac. Due to its isolation from both the West and Russia, Ukraine, too, will have to rely on Chinese vaccines for 2021, having already ordered 1.9 million doses of CoronaVac. The same goes for much of Africa, with the President of the Seychelles receiving his first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine just today, and Morocco’s coronavirus response relying primarily on 40 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine. Even Brazil, with a relatively Sinophobic leadership, has ordered 46 million doses of locally produced CoronaVac.
A country cannot oppose a country from which it buys its core response to the largest crisis facing humanity in the present time. China’s ability to export its vaccines show substantial Chinese soft power even outside the countries that have signed support for its Xinjiang policies. As is the case for the response to China’s Xinjiang policies, the results of vaccine diplomacy have created a glaring divide on the basis of national income -not a single rich democracy has currently approved or has a contract for a Chinese vaccine, while a whole host of rich autocracies and low and middle income countries have eagerly accepted them. The difference is partly due to the mechanics of storage, with the mRNA vaccines requiring more money to ship than any of the Chinese vaccines. But India, whose leadership is unusually anti-Chinese by third world standards due to border disputes, is relying on a combination of AstraZeneca and Novavax, as well as a bit of Sputnik V. If Sinophobia were a real concern to the third world, we’d be seeing a lot more demand for the AstraZeneca vaccine and a lot less demand for the Chinese vaccines.
All in all, it appears China’s aim to come out from the coronavirus pandemic with its international reputation strong is in good shape.
UPDATE: Once very mild symptomatic cases were included, the clinical efficacy of Coronavac in Brazil was found to be 50.38%. However, too much has been made of this finding by the Western press; this tweet summarizes the actual meaning of vaccines’ clinical efficacy well. So far as we know, all currently used COVID vaccines are safe and effective.