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China: Africa to have priority access to COVID-19 vaccine

By Eric Olander
Posted on Tuesday, 8 September 2020 08:20

China Trade Fair
A visitor looks at a model of a coronavirus and boxes for COVID-19 vaccines at a display by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm at the China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in Beijing, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his oft-stated promise that developing countries, specifically those in Africa, will receive priority access to a Chinese-produced COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available for distribution.

President Xi made the comments during a phone call [in late August] with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. Morocco, like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is playing an important role in China’s vaccine development programme as it’s among the countries participating in phase III clinical trials of China National Biotec Group’s (CNBG) COVID-19 vaccine. Similar trials are also underway in the UAE.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Africa leads vaccine quest with trials in Johannesburg

And when a Chinese-made vaccine is ready for distribution in Africa, it’s likely that it’ll be manufactured in Egypt where the two governments have agreed to create a vaccine production hub in the North African country.

The distribution network to get a future vaccine out to every African country is also likely already in place thanks to the efforts of the Jack Ma Foundation and Ethiopian Airlines who delivered tons of PPE across the continent over the past several months.

READ MORE Ethiopian Airlines: “We want to become Alibaba’s official airline”

But China’s not alone in the fight for vaccine market share in Africa. Russia, who claims that its Sputnik V vaccine is ready even though it hasn’t undergone the same extensive clinical trials as vaccines under development in other countries, has already signed deals to distribute its COVID-19 treatment to 20 countries including Algeria.

While the vaccine push in Africa plays out between Russia and China, the US and European countries have remained noticeably silent. Neither President Donald Trump nor any EU leader has offered any indication that a future vaccine produced by their countries would be made available for free to African countries.

So, if China is able to fulfill its promise and distribute a vaccine soon after it’s available in a timely, cost-efficient manner, it could be an enormous diplomatic win for Beijing on the continent — potentially wiping out some of the animosity built up this year due to COVID-19 outbreak, what happened in Guangzhou and even the debt issue.

READ MORE  Coronavirus: China can help Africa have a stake in race for a vaccine

But, and this is important, distributing a Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine in Africa is a high stakes proposition that has as much downside risk as it does potential upside gain.

A Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine in Africa: What could go wrong?

IT DOESN’T WORK: The Chinese vaccines currently in development are based on a common cold virus, adenovirus type 5 or Ad5, that many people have already been exposed to, which could limit the vaccine’s effectiveness, warn experts.

“MADE IN CHINA”:  If everything goes well and a Chinese vaccine allows life to return to normal across Africa, China will be the hero. But, if the vaccine proves ineffective, or worse creates unforeseen health effects, China’s legions of critics in Africa will pounce. China already has a checkered reputation for product quality in Africa, especially involving counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and any problems with a future vaccine would play right into this narrative.

CORRUPTION: One of the key learnings from the Jack Ma Foundation PPE donations is that just because China donates relief supplies to various countries doesn’t mean it actually gets to the intended recipients. PPE corruption scandals in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Somalia, and other countries highlight what could happen to a valuable vaccine. Plus, vaccines often need to be refrigerated and any corruption along the supply chain could jeopardise its effectiveness and China’s reputation.

This article first appeared on the China Africa project.

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