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GLOBAL TIMES-Interview-Chief Lawyer Xu Xinming: China ramps up vaccine globalization to ensure equitable distribution as US shuns efforts

Post Time:2021-01-18 Source:Global Times Author:Hu Yuwei Views:

While the US on Tuesday refused to join the international effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, China is pooling efforts in international cooperation to secure a fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines without geopolitical boundaries. But experts warned the challenges and risks to Chinese vaccine's globalization remain acute. 

As China seals commitment to support immunization amid coronavirus pandemic in developing countries, more UN-backed alliance place great hopes on China to join global partnerships to boost global vaccine allocation by mobilizing its resources. 

China supports the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) and has been in close communication with the WHO and other initiators of the plan, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Wednesday. Chinese authorities and vaccine producers held a video conference on Tuesday with the WHO, Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to deliver a consensus to facilitate the global R&D and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, Hua said.

"Given China's active leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside extensive ongoing vaccine research efforts, we believe there is much room for both Chinese public and private actors to participate in both the COVAX Facility and the COVAX Advance Market Commitment initiatives, which will go a long way toward ensuring that the COVID-19 vaccine, when ready, will be available equitably to all," the spokesperson of the GAVI said in an exclusive response to the Global Times.

GAVI, a public-private global health partnership linked with the WHO and tasked with increasing poor countries' access to immunization, encourages potential vaccine developers including those in China to submit promising candidates for consideration for COVAX research and development, and manufacturing funding, the spokesperson said. 

"A number have already done so via CEPI's Call for Proposals and the COVAX Facility. There are nine vaccines in clinical trials in China and CEPI has two candidates with partners based in China in its portfolio."

The Chinese government said in June it will make a contribution of $20 million to GAVI's funding for the 2021-25 period. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on August 24 more than 170 countries have expressed readiness to join the COVAX Facility, a World Health Organization (WHO) platform designed to ensure rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines deemed effective worldwide. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular press meeting on August 25 that China firmly supports developing countries' efforts in the health sector and honors its pledge of turning the COVID-19 vaccine into a global public good. 

While China's pledge has been welcomed, some have voiced concern over the risk from potential legal disputes or unrecoverable economic costs if the vaccine is applied to wider range of countries. 

But observers suggest those challenges will not affect China's determination to work with the international community.

Sao Paulo State Governor Joao Doria displays a box of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech on July 21. Photo: AFP

Biosafety dispute

With some Western countries consistently alleging Chinese vaccine research is part of a global influence campaign, China is under scrutiny in the race to develop a vaccine. Any safety problems that arise when the vaccine is available can shake the reputation of Chinese pharmaceutical companies and the whole industry, experts suggested. They said this uncertainty is aggravated considering the COVID-19 vaccine will be put into use much faster than in normal circumstance.

Also, technology transfers and the management of intellectual property are potential risks in the vaccines' usage abroad. 

"We have to be very clear that if Chinese vaccines break any law or restrictions in host countries, and vice versa, whether Chinese home-grown technology can be well protected from infringement by local enterprises," Xu Xinming, a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights, told the Global Times.

In bilateral cooperation on vaccines, ways of resolving disputes over bio-safety (such as coping with potential side effects) should be specified in the contract. Failing to do so risk the vaccines being politicized, the expert warned.

But Xu argues the enterprises should take the lead in cooperation and protect self-interests using international rules, whereas governmental institutes or diplomatic tools should only be used to assist countries in resolving disputes.

A staff member displays samples of the COVID-19 inactivated vaccine at Sinovac Biotech Ltd., in Beijing, capital of China. Photo: Xinhua

Economic risks

A report by Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy of University of Minnesota revealed the COVID19 pandemic will likely last 18 to 24 months, while 60 to 70 percent of the population may need to achieve herd immunity for halting the pandemic. A vaccine is believed to be one of the most imperative key to stop the spread.

China has pledged to offer the successful COVID-19 vaccine to at least 10 developing countries, but most of those partners are low-income countries, raising concerns that the high R&D costs cannot be recouped.

"Prices of vaccine supplied to low-income countries should only be barely higher than the cost," Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based immunological expert told the Global Times. "Vaccines offer exemplified China's promise in initiative of the concept of 'a community with a shared future' so its pricing is beyond a commercial issue. The cost of R&D will be shared by the Chinese government and enterprises together."

Pricing of Chinese-developed vaccine follows the principle of "not-for-profit" but it does not mean "no-profit" or "below cost," Zha Daojiong, a professor of international political economy in the School of International Studies and Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development, Peking University, said in a recent opinion piece. "China's promise to make the COVID19 vaccine a global public good has been fulfilled in a way without making profit."

"COVID-19 vaccines certainly qualify as a public good for global public health. But the products are by nature capital intensive, while returns on investment need to be met through adequate pricing of final dosage sales. The gap between expected returns and financial capacity on the part of end users, especially those in low income countries, can be formidable," Zha said.