China set to capitalise on vaccine inequality as Covax falls short of herd immunity

Global Covax scheme will cover only 20% to 30% of populations in developing countries

A patient receives a dose of the Sinopharm vaccine in Pakistan. AFP
A patient receives a dose of the Sinopharm vaccine in Pakistan. AFP

China is poised to capitalise on global vaccine inequality by offering shots to the world, because the Covax scheme will get developing countries nowhere near herd immunity, analysts warned.

The international Covax project funded by the US, Britain and others aims to bring Covid-19 vaccines to poorer countries.

But it will cover only 20 per cent to 30 per cent of countries' populations, even if it is a success, the German Development Institute think tank said.

That is well short of the 70 per cent coverage which scientists say is an approximate threshold for herd immunity.

The US is still holding back on exporting vaccines while the EU brought in export controls to ensure supplies at home and is mainly delivering shots to other wealthy countries.

Meanwhile, China is accepting orders from around the world for its Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines.

As a result, China will be able to “credibly claim that it is doing more than the West to help developing countries”, according to the Bonn-based institute.

“Beijing seeks to position itself as a leader of the developing world, and vaccine exports provide a useful tool with which Beijing can deepen relationships in the global south,” it said.

“There is fertile ground for this narrative in the global south, where it is commonplace to see rich countries as self-interested and exploitative.

“Against the backdrop of worsening tensions between China and the West, it will be increasingly important for Beijing to secure support among what was called in the Cold War the ‘third world’, the GDI said.

“We should not undervalue developing country diplomacy in our ‘systemic rivalry’ with China, nor underestimate the successes of China’s vaccine diplomacy.”

Chinese vaccines are used in parts of the Middle East, South America and Africa, as well as in Hungary, which broke away from the EU’s joint purchasing scheme to order its own Sinopharm shots.

China’s top disease control official said this month that the current vaccines marketed by Beijing “don’t have very high protection rates”.

However, while they may fall short of the very high efficacy rates set by Western mRNA vaccines, they still “go a long way” in the current crisis, the GDI said.

Comparing Chinese shots to Western ones does not undermine the appeal of Beijing’s vaccines when there is “no other option to numerous countries,” it said.

Rich nations under pressure to send vaccines abroad

The 29 lowest-income countries in the world have administered only 0.1 per cent of the world’s vaccine doses.

High-income countries accounting for 16 per cent of the global population have handed out nearly half of all doses so far.

The EU claims to be the leading exporter of vaccines around the world, but many of these go to the UK, Canada and other rich countries.

US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the US wanted to share vaccines with other countries but would not do so until it had enough at home.

The US has administered more than 215 million shots, giving a first dose to more than half of its adult population.

Covax, to which the US has contributed $2 billion, has delivered more than 38 million doses so far to 113 participating countries and territories.

It is led by the WHO and the Gavi vaccine alliance, whose chief executive Seth Berkley pleaded last week for another $2 billion in donations to shore up supplies.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg accused rich countries on Monday of failing a “moral test” to ensure global access to vaccines.

“We talked today about showing solidarity, and yet vaccine nationalism is what's running the vaccine distribution,” she said.

More on Covid-19 vaccinations

Biden will send vaccines abroad when US has enough supply

World Bank expects to fund $4bn worth of Covid-19 vaccines

Irish hotel quarantine exemption limited to four vaccines

Updated: April 24, 2021 11:36 AM


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