Coronavirus emergency

2020-09-21 Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi

The Great Race for a Vaccine that China Wants to Win

To limit the damage to its image suffered in recent months, and to present itself as a scientific leader in the new post-pandemic global order, Beijing aims to be the first to get an effective vaccine against the coronavirus to market. To do so, China has intensified research especially in the military sector and has begun human trials both inside and outside of its borders. The state enterprise Sinovac is even said to have tested its own product on 90 percent of its employees and their family members

For more than a month the People’s Republic has not recorded any new locally transmitted cases of COVID-19;[1] schools and universities have reopened, and if we don’t consider the restrictions on entering the country and digital contact tracing,[2] everything seems to have returned to how it was prior to the pandemic. The Chinese economy was the first to breathe a sigh of relief, and the “Communist Party for the Chinese people, hit by the storm, has demonstrated the most reliable backbone,” President Xi Jinping declared last September 8, when he gave awards to the SARS-CoV-2 war heroes: over two thousand doctors, healthcare operators, volunteers, and public safety workers. As if to say, this war has been won.

The narrative promoted by the most populous country in the world, is that the mass organization and prompt reflexes with which China reacted to the epidemic saved millions of lives and gave the rest of the world time to get organized. Although not everyone agrees with this reconstruction,[3] Beijing admits no contradictions and keeps going forward: of the nine vaccines already in the trial phase on human beings, four are made in China.[4] The idea is to win back legitimacy and soft power. If the second-largest economy in the world succeeds in producing a vaccine before the United States, in addition to the humiliation for the Trump administration, Xi Jinping could completely repair the damage to his country’s image and present China as a scientific leader in the new post-pandemic global order. For all intents and purposes, the diplomatic offensive is already underway. China has already promised to extend credit to the countries of Central and South America so they can buy the necessary vaccine doses and has promised over 100,000 free doses to Bangladesh. The Philippines was given priority access to a drug potentially produced by China only after their president Rodrigo Duterte promised the Parliament that he would not challenge Beijing in the South China Sea. And African countries will certainly not stop receiving Chinese assistance.

The importance of developing a vaccine that works and being the first to do it, is demonstrated by the abundance of research linked to military environments. One of the first groups that succeeded in demonstrating that some products could develop the proper immune response, was that led by Chen Wei, both one of the most important generals in the People’s Liberation Army and chief virologist of the Institute of Bioengineering of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences. The vaccine they developed (Ad5-nCoV) has been tested on military personnel with the approval of the Chinese government. Military institutions are also responsible for two other types of vaccines, that work differently on the same goal, but have not yet reached the human trial phase.[5]

This poses another problem. Precisely because China was one of the first countries to tame the epidemic, it must test the efficacy of the vaccines abroad. The state enterprise Sinovac has involved thousands of volunteers in Brazil[6] and Indonesia;[7] Sinopharm has involved Peruvians, Moroccans,[8] and Argentinians.[9] While this is the international practice to test a drug on a large scale, what’s more worrying is that since the end of July, they have begun to vaccinate some categories of people inside the People’s Republic: healthcare workers, public officials, logistics and general market workers. Sinovac is even said to have tested its product on 90 percent of its employees and family members before the product had passed all of the relevant tests.[10] This means sidestepping international research standards and putting the lives of their own citizens at risk; forgetting that haste has never brought science much luck.

[2] “La difficile fase 2 della Cina”, Economia & Management, May 4, 2020.

[3] “Coronavirus: quello che Pechino non racconta”, Economia & Management, January 29, 2020.

[4] “Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker”, The New York Times, September 18, 2020.