China joins COVAX coronavirus vaccine alliance

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FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2020, file photo, a worker feeds vials for production of SARS CoV-2 Vaccine for COVID-19 at the SinoVac vaccine factory in Beijing. China said on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, that it is joining the COVID-19 vaccine alliance known as COVAX. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

TAIPEI – China, which has at least four coronavirus vaccine candidates in the last stage of clinical trials, said Friday it is joining an international initiative to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to countries worldwide known as COVAX, a move that may help the country find an international market for its coronavirus shots.

The country signed an agreement with Gavi, the co-leader of the project, on Thursday, China's foreign ministry said. Initially, China did not agree to join the alliance, after missing an early deadline to join in September.

“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 spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement. She added later at a daily news briefing that many Chinese vaccine companies expressed a willingness to join the partnership and that China would buy vaccines for about 1% of its population through COVAX.

The exact terms of the agreement and how China will contribute are not yet clear. Countries can choose to buy vaccines to cover up to 50% of their population but many developed countries are using COVAX as a type of insurance policy to obtain extra doses on top of any bilateral deals signed with pharmaceutical companies.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping previously said the country would make the vaccine a global public good and would distribute its shots in Africa — but only after China's own immunization program had been completed.

The World Health Organization, which also leads COVAX, welcomed the announcement, saying in a statement that “the number of countries joining the COVAX facility grows every day, and we are pleased to see China formally join.”

The initiative is designed so that richer countries agree to buy into potential vaccines and help finance access for poorer ones, but critical questions remain about how its goal will be carried out. Many countries including Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, and others have directly negotiated their own deals with pharmaceutical companies to receive billions of doses, meaning that the vast majority of the world's vaccine supply next year is already reserved.

Some experts point out that without significant efforts to quickly boost manufacturing capacity globally, Chinese vaccine producers may offer the best chance to supply the developing world. China's decision to join COVAX might give the country an opportunity to sign multimillion dollar deals that Gavi and partners will need to enter to secure billions of vaccine doses.