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On Thursday, Beijing joined the World Health organization’s Covax initiative—an international effort to develop and distribute vaccines for COVID-19 so that developing economies aren’t left behind. So far over 160 countries, including China, have joined Covax—but the U.S. remains a holdout.
“We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more capable countries will also join and support Covax,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement Friday, as China became the largest economy to join the partnership.
China’s assent to the initiative comes as the country faces an international reckoning over its handling of the pandemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Public opinion on China is at an all time low but joining Covax is one way Beijing might redeem itself.
What is Covax?
The UN, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and vaccine alliance Gavi launched Covax as a collaborative effort in June. According to Richard Hatchett, the CEO of CEPI, Covax aims to vaccinate the most vulnerable 20% of every country that participates by 2021. To do that, the 75 wealthiest member countries contribute financing that supports inoculation in the poorer 90 countries.
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“Ensuring fair access is not only a matter of equity; it is the fastest way to end this pandemic,” Hatchett said. The initiative insists vaccines be mass-produced in advance of receiving approval, which is a huge capital risk. In September, UN Secretary General António Guterres said the $18 billion initiative needs an additional $15 billion in support by the end of the year.
Beijing hasn’t released any details of its Covax agreement, but China’s onboarding might provide some of that funding. It’s likely as well that the WHO will be able to tap China’s huge manufacturing capacity to scale up vaccine production. China has nine coronavirus vaccines under development, four of which have entered final stage trials.
“Even when China is leading the world with several vaccines in advanced stages of R&D and with ample production capacity, it still decided to join Covax,” Hua said. But joining Covax has benefits for China too. Membership is a hedge against China’s own vaccines failing, as Covax ensures all members will receive the first readily available vaccine.
Supporting Covax is also a potential political win for Beijing,. Globally, public opinion of China has declined this year, depressed by governments lumping blame for the pandemic on Beijing.
According to Pew Research Center, a majority of people in 14 surveyed countries hold a negative view of China, while a median 61% think China handled the coronavirus poorly. Conversely, when it comes to global affairs, people have more faith in Xi Jinping to do the “right thing” than they do in U.S. President Donald Trump—19% to 17%.
China joining Covax could affirm that belief. According to Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong University’s Asia Global Institute, China would prefer to continue forging bilateral partnerships on vaccine programs outside of the WHO—cherry picking partners to suit its political needs.
In July, China agreed to grant the Philippines “priority” access to any Chinese-made vaccines after President Rodrigo Duterte announced he would not stand against Chinese action in the South China Sea. And in August, Canada—which is in disagreement with China over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver two years ago—cancelled a vaccine partnership with CanSino after Chinese customs delayed exports of the product for four months.
That China joined the multilateral Covax framework “[shows] its ambition to be seen tackling COVID-19 instead of the United States,” Kato says. “The Chinese Communist Party still sees Trump’s reluctance on international cooperation as its own strategic chance to enhance international influence.”
Trump began the process of withdrawing the U.S.—which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world—from the WHO in July, accusing the organization of being too lenient on China.
In September, the White House shunned the Covax initiative, saying the U.S. refused to “be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.”
Evidently the U.S. withdrawal has left room for China to step in.
More must-read international coverage from Fortune:
- Boris Johnson wants young Brits to buy homes—even if that means banks have to lend like it’s 2006
- Discontent with China reaches historic highs as the pandemic rolls on
- Tech firms in India coalesce around a common foe: Google’s “monopoly”
- The tech startup trying to restore our faith in COVID-free air travel
- What’s more destructive than COVID-19? The twin shocks of a pandemic and no-deal Brexit, Germany warns