China has formally joined the WHO-backed global Covid-19 vaccine initiative known as COVAX, the Chinese foreign ministry announced on Friday, saying it was doing so to ensure “equitable” distribution of vaccines for developing countries.
The ministry did not share details about its level of involvement, but China is now the biggest economy to join the international initiative, with the US and Russia staying out of it.
“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,” ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement.
“China will also strengthen vaccine cooperation with relevant countries through the COVAX network,” she added.
The WHO hopes to distribute 2 billion doses of vaccines through the initiative by the end of 2021.
On October 8, China and Gavi, the international Vaccine Alliance, signed an agreement, officially joining COVAX.
COVAX, jointly led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the vaccine alliance Gavi, is “designed to give governments an opportunity to hedge the risk of backing unsuccessful vaccine candidates and give less developed countries access to shots that would be otherwise unaffordable,” a Bloomberg report said in September.
It currently has nine vaccines in development and nine others under evaluation in its portfolio.
“This is an important step China has taken to uphold the concept of a shared community of health for all and to honour its commitment to turn Covid-19 vaccines into a global public good,” Hua said.
In May, Chinese President Xi Jinping had pledged to make any coronavirus vaccine universally available once it’s developed and said China will provide $2 billion over two years to support the fight.
“To that end, we have solemnly pledged to make vaccines developed and deployed by China a global public good, which will be provided to developing countries as a priority,” Hua said.
“Therefore, China has maintained close communication with COVAX with a positive attitude towards joining it. 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”.
As many as 11 Chinese vaccine candidates are under clinical trials, four of them in phase three. Chinese companies are working with related organisations including those in the Middle East, South America, and Southeast Asia, Wu Yuanbin, a senior official with the Chinese science and technology ministry, had said in late September.
China’s annual production for Covid-19 vaccines is expected to top 1 billion doses by 2021 while it is expected to reach 610 million doses by the end of this year.
The country’s national health commission (NHC) has shared an outline of how the vaccines will be distributed in China when available.
The first is the high-risk group, which includes frontline medical workers and those working in the seaports. The second is the vulnerable group, such as the seniors and children. And the third one is the general population. “When we allocate vaccines, we will meet their needs according to those groups,” Zheng Zhongwei, director at NHC’s Development Centre of Medical Science and Technology has said.