China keeps saying no to US offers of COVID vaccines

Washington: China has rebuffed repeated US offers to share advanced vaccines as Beijing battles a fast-spreading wave of COVID-19, a rejection that’s led to growing frustration among American officials concerned about a resurgence of the pandemic in the US.

Worried about the rise of new variants and impact on China’s economy, the US has repeatedly offered mRNA vaccines and other assistance to President Xi Jinping’s government through private channels, according to US officials who asked not to be identified discussing the deliberations.

A woman receives a second booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine through the nose, at a temporary vaccination site in Beijing, in mid-December.Credit:Xinhua/AP

They have also proposed indirect ways to supply the vaccines to accommodate political sensitivities in China on accepting foreign aid, they said, without providing more details.

The offers have been made by senior diplomats, including during a December trip to China by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink and National Security Council Senior Director Laura Rosenberger, as well as through public health officials and intermediaries. Although officials have said publicly that they’ve offered vaccines to China, the full extent of that outreach hasn’t been previously reported.

At a regular press briefing in Beijing on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said China’s vaccine and medical supplies were “overall in adequate supply”.

“We have enough vaccines to make sure that people eligible have access to vaccines,” she said. “We will continue to work with the international community, including the US, to better deal with the challenge of COVID and protect people’s life and health.”

It’s unclear how useful mRNA shots would be as the Omicron variant runs rampant in China – antivirals to treat infection, like Pfizer’s Paxlovid, is the more urgent need now. The problem for the Communist Party has more been persuading its vulnerable elderly population to take the jab. Only about two-thirds of people aged over 80 were fully vaccinated as of November, the last time data was released.

Accepting vaccines from the US is likely a non-starter politically for Xi, as it would shine a spotlight on Beijing’s failure to develop its own mRNA vaccine at a time when China is pushing for self-reliance amid a broader strategic fight with the US. China historically has been reticent to accept outside assistance during crises.

‘Unnecessary deaths’

The rising frustration — shared by both sides — underscores just how hard it will be for the US and China to stabilise ties after a meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden at the G20 in Bali last year. It’s also highlighted the significant distrust and suspicion that remain between the world’s two biggest economies.

“The Xi administration’s propaganda narrative on COVID has long emphasised its ‘success’ as an outcome of China’s unique political institutions, and so this has artificially limited access to external vaccines,” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“Even in the midst of a catastrophic outbreak of COVID, Beijing continues to emphasise vaccine nationalism, a decision that will undoubtedly result in unnecessary deaths,” Blanchette said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed on Friday (Saturday AEDT) that “We have offered COVID vaccines to the PRC”.

“They’ve said publicly that they appreciate the offer but they’re not in need of it right now. We’ll continue to discuss this with them, of course.”

Early on, as millions of people died around the world, China held up its Zero-COVID approach of strict quarantines, travel limits and heavy masking as a model that it was saving lives – and pointedly suggested the US was recklessly killing its people. But now China is suddenly allowing the virus to run rampant, an abrupt shift that occurred days after spontaneous street protests against lockdowns.

As a result, the US has ramped up its offers in recent weeks, one of the people said. The two sides continue to speak through health channels, another person said, adding that Beijing’s response to the repeated offers has been firm. Every time, Chinese officials have told their US interlocutors that Beijing has the situation under control and doesn’t require assistance, according to the people.

China has never lacked access to mRNA shots. Chinese company Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical licensed the Pfizer vaccine nearly three years ago and planned to distribute 100 million doses, but authorities in Beijing haven’t yet granted regulatory approval.

Xi’s administration has officially acknowledged only about 30 COVID deaths since it abandoned strict pandemic controls at the beginning of December, prompting governments around the world to impose restrictions on Chinese travellers. It has said the shift was the correct policy because omicron isn’t as deadly as other variants. Itreported only three deaths on the mainland for January 6, taking its pandemic total to 5267.

In a briefing on Thursday, Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, pushed back against suggestions that its vaccines weren’t effective.

Liu cited a University of Hong Kong study that suggested three doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac were 97 per cent effective against severe illness or death, roughly in line with three doses of an mRNA vaccine. He added that China had administered 3.4 billion shots domestically and had an annual production capacity of 7 billion doses, making it a player in vaccine exports.

“China can not only meet domestic demand but also supply to other countries in need,” he told reporters. “We are also working to upgrade the vaccines to make them more effective and bolster vaccinations to cope with possible new variants so that we will continue to play a constructive role in the global COVID fight.”

Governments and health officials from around the globe are seeking more transparency from China. Xi’s government has long blocked foreign inquiries into the origins of COVID, frustrating American officials, and the World Health Organisation this week pleaded for more data from China.

US officials have grown even more vexed because China has threatened retaliation over requirements imposed by the US and other nations that travellers coming from China submit proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Still, it’s unclear what that would look like since China already requires travellers to get a PCR test before entering.

Asked this week if he was concerned about the way China was handling the virus, Biden said, “Well, yes I am.”


Most Viewed in World

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article