Beijing has put its support behind the COVAX programme that wants to make coronavirus doses available for rich and poor countries alike.
On Friday, China announced it will join a World Health Organisation (WHO)-led group, which aims to ensure that hundreds of millions of people in poor countries are not left out when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available.
Launched earlier this year, COVAX wants wealthy nations to pool funds that, together, can be used to develop and scale up vaccine production. In return, the rich countries would have a guaranteed supply for between 10 percent and 50 percent of their population.
The initiative basically subsidises the supply of doses to dozens of poor countries where up to 20 percent of the population will receive the vaccine. This way, the WHO can guarantee a market for vaccines to manufacturers and negotiate a fair price.
The alliance of 168 countries has already garnered support from big economies including Japan and the European Union.
With China’s inclusion, only Russia and the United States are among the countries leading the race for coronavirus vaccine development outside the COVAX initiative.
Beijing, which has already administered a trial vaccine to thousands of hospitals and airline workers, had initially said its resources were tied up in bilateral commitments with partners such as Pakistan and the Philippines.
Even as it hasn't announced the size of its monetary contribution to the COVAX, China’s backing gives the initiative a boost, especially as the US President Donald Trump has publicly attacked the WHO and threatened to cut funding of the global health body.
This week, Japan said it will contribute $130 million to the initiative. To secure the targeted billion doses, COVAX plans to raise $2 billion this year. It already has contributions and pledges of $1.8 from different donors.
Next year, it would need to raise $5 billion to put the plan into action.
An absence of a collective response to develop and widely distribute a coronavirus vaccine, has raised concerns that rich countries can gobble up the drug supply to meet the needs of their own citizens.
A group of rich countries, representing 13 percent of the world’s population, have reserved around half of the vaccine supply already, according to Oxfam.
Rich countries including the US, the UK, EU, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Switzerland and Israel have signed deals with manufacturers to get their hands on 51 percent of doses when production starts.
Instead of coming together with a joint strategy, some of the most financially well-off nations have moved to secure their own supplies.
President Trump’s administration has signed a $1.5 billion deal with biotech firm Moderna to buy 100 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine.
Washington has pumped billions of dollars in efforts to develop a vaccine. The funds have gone to around eight candidates including those being developed by AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer.
AstraZeneca has deals with Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy. The UK government has secured 60 million doses from Glaxosmithkline and Sanofi, in addition to millions of shots being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
Governments choosing to prioritise their own people could lead to disruptions in global supply chains, as seen when nations started to hoard face masks and medical protective gear at the start of the pandemic.
Vaccines, which work by enhancing the immune response to the virus, generally take years to be developed. The urgency to deal with coronavirus, however, which has already killed more than a million people worldwide, has forced developers to accelerate the process into months.
Nine vaccine candidates have reached phase 3 trials, including four from China, and three from the US.
The COVAX initiative has set the price of vaccines at $1.6 to $2 per dose that will be shared between the participating countries.