How Beijing Positioned Itself as the Savior of the Developing World
In 2020, China bungled its initial response to COVID-19. As a result, the disease spread around the world, crippling economies, killing more than 1.2 million people, and badly damaging Beijing’s image. In 2021, China plans to redeem itself by vaccinating a large chunk of the global population. Although it faces stiff competition from the United States and other Western nations in the race to develop the first vaccine, Beijing is poised to dominate the distribution of vaccines to the developing world—and to reap the strategic benefits of doing so.
Worldwide, 11 COVID-19 vaccine candidates are currently in phase three trials, the final stage before regulatory approval. Four are Chinese. The most promising of these, developed by Wuhan-based Sinopharm, is already being given to frontline workers in the United Arab Emirates. According to Wu Guizhen, chief biosafety expert at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Sinopharm’s candidate is on track for full approval this month or next.
Leading American vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer could be approved on a similar timeline. But the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has no plan to compete with China to distribute vaccines to the more than half of humanity that lives in the developing world. The United States has declined to participate in a World Health Organization (WHO) initiative to deliver two billion vaccine doses to at-risk populations in developing countries, and it has not extended financing to or signed preferential vaccine distribution deals with such countries, as China has done. The U.S. approach to vaccine development and distribution, as to so much else during this administration, has been “America first.” By ceding the public health field to China, the United States will allow Beijing to recast itself not just as a global leader in vaccine development and distribution but as the savior of the developing world.