TAIPEI, Taiwan — China said Friday it will join Covax, an international effort to distribute covid-19 vaccines to about two-thirds of the world population by 2022, in a reversal that makes the country the biggest player in the vaccine development race to join the initiative.
China, along with the United States and Russia, previously declined to join the World Health Organization-led program, known as the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, on its Sept. 18 enrollment deadline. Beijing has already promised vaccines to a number of allied countries and geopolitically important states it has sought to woo, such as Pakistan and the Philippines, and Chinese officials said in recent weeks they were not sure they could join Covax and still fulfill those bilateral commitments.
In a statement announcing the Covax deal, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is confident it could ramp up manufacturing. “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,” Hua said.
China’s about-face now leaves two leading countries in the vaccine race, the United States and Russia, outside the alliance. Other backers include Japan, Britain, Germany and the European Union.
The White House said last month it would not join the WHO-led Covax because it did not want to be “constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.”
The Trump administration has vociferously attacked the WHO and withdrawn funding after the agency’s officials appeared to repeat Chinese government talking points and praise Beijing’s response to the pandemic despite Chinese officials’ missteps and coverups in the crucial early days. WHO officials also locked out Taiwan, which has boasted exemplary success in controlling the virus, from participating in its forums under political pressure from Beijing.
Although China absorbed intense international criticism after the outbreak spread from Wuhan in January, the government quickly brought the coronavirus under control at home and began an aggressive diplomatic effort to mend its image abroad with mask and medical equipment donations.
While refusing international calls for an investigation into the origins of the virus, the Chinese government has pitched itself as forward-looking and altruistic: Speaking before the WHO assembly in May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping promised $2 billion over two years to help the covid-19 response and said any future Chinese vaccines would be a “global public good” – a statement the government repeated Friday in announcing its participation in Covax.
The Covax program seeks to equitably distribute a pool of at least 2 billion vaccines to high-risk people in each country. Although vaccine-producing countries would have to share as part of Covax, participation in the program represents a kind of insurance policy: countries that fail to produce a homegrown vaccine might be locked out of the global pool if they don’t join Covax.
China currently has four vaccines in phase three clinical trials, almost half of the nine vaccines globally that are in the final development stage. The United States and Germany are both involved in two multinational projects, while a Russian vaccine and one from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford in Britain are also in the final phase.