The Chinese government’s all-out effort to develop a vaccine to quell the coronavirus that has devastated the world economy after it sprang from a Wuhan wet market 14 months ago, is being met with widespread distrust and refusal of people to line up for a shot, playing into rising concerns over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wider ambitions at Asian political and economic domination.
Given the black eye from the onset of Covid-19 – and reports of three vaccine scandals in China since 2010 – Chinese authorities had hoped to regain the diplomatic initiative by rushing the vaccine into production even amid considerable confusion over its efficacy. But "I won’t take it,” Farman Ali Shah, a motorcycle driver in Karachi for local ride-hailing app Bykea, told Bloomberg News. "I don’t trust it.” Farman’s mistrust is echoed across Asia, from Malaysia to the Philippines, where others have exhibited enough mistrust to overcome their fear of the virus itself. “The China jab is shit,” another suspicious source said in Singapore.
Governments across the planet have ordered millions of doses from the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group, or Sinopharm. In an effort to allay concerns, President Joko Widodo himself lined up (above) on January 13 for Indonesia’s first Covid-19 vaccination by Sinovac Biotech, as did Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, which is rolling out the vaccine despite the fact that fully half of Turkey’s 83 million people say they would refuse to be vaccinated with it.
Although Turkish researchers found that the Sinovac vaccine was 91.25 percent effective in preventing the onset of the coronavirus, trials in the United Arab Emirates found it to be somewhat lesser, at 86 percent effective, while Indonesian trials found the drug was only 61 percent effective. The Turkish trials were conducted on only 29 subjects. Even worse news emerged from Brazil, where the Chinese vaccine was found to be effective in only 50.4 percent of cases in clinical trials numbering13,000 participants. Too many across Asia and elsewhere believe there wasn’t sufficient scientific rigor, the trials were too short and too rushed, and that, in the words of one observer who declined to be named, “poor Asians and others are being given a shoddy vaccine because Beijing wants to score political points with its crappy jab.”
Whether that is true or not, those countries going ahead with the Chinese vaccine, however, seem to be proceeding on the basis that, while it may only be 50 percent effective, it’s better than zero percent without a vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been found to be more than 90 percent effective, but it’s a question of availability and price. Although legions of common citizens from the Philippines to Indonesia to Turkey to Brazil are shying away from China’s vaccine, governments are sticking with it. Thailand is sticking with it although authorities have also bought 26 million doses of the UK-based AstraZenica vaccine – which won’t arrive until June. It will still need to be approved by the Thai FDA.
Sinopharm Chairman Liu Jingzhen has tried to allay fears, posting on social media that more than a million people have been vaccinated in more than 150 countries and that “there has not been a single case of infection after inoculation. Only individual patients have had some mild symptoms.”
But news of the erratic results have combined with general unease about the effort, according to a wide range of reports, and damaged China’s considerable ambitions both to demonstrate the newfound superiority of its institutions while ameliorating anger that the virus sprang from China in the first place. That has combined with general unease about China’s growing global sway via the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which has built airports, roads, railways, and seaports across the region that many Asians fear are mainly to be used to facilitate Chinese exploitation of other countries’ resources and assets.
As author Sebastian Strangio wrote in his recently-released book, “In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century” (Yale University Press, 2019), the virus has “threatened to derail China’s strategic ambitions in Southeast Asia. The pandemic, Strangio wrote, “served as a reminder of the many challenges, both internal and external, facing President Xi Jinping’s rule. These ranged from environmental despoliation and an aging population to the violent unrest in Hong Kong and the growing international condemnation of China’s mass internment or Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.”
Added to this “was the threat of a global backlash over China’s failure in the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, when it covered up early reports of the virus, and then delayed locking down the epicenter of the virus in Wuhan, allowing the disease to spread. All of these were a reminder that the infinite linear growth of Chinese wealth and power could no longer be taken for granted.”
Now also add to that growing concerns, founded or unfounded, that Chinese authorities didn’t adequately test the vaccine in their rush to get it to countries in their sway. Already there were growing concerns that the contagion could prompt some countries to also reduce their reliance on China’s formidable manufacturing base and supply chains. That exodus from China had already begun as a consequence of the trade war sparked by the Trump administration.
It isn’t as if it didn’t happen before. In 2016, a major public health scandal broke out after Chinese police announced they had broken a criminal ring selling millions of improperly stored vaccines in 24 provinces and municipalities across China. The affected included many of the most common shots from hepatitis to rabies. Although approved manufacturers had produced them, police reported that they were not refrigerated or transported according to regulations, rendering them at best useless and at worst dangerous. It happened again in 2018, when hundreds of thousands of children across China were found to have been injected with faulty vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough, resulting in a highly visible public health scandal.
In response, the World Health Organization called on China to strengthen regulation of the private sale of vaccines, while stating their belief that these vaccines were unlikely to cause injury. As the Belt and Road Initiative has proliferated across the world, especially in Africa, rising numbers of news reports have chronicled widespread corruption in contracting and bidding. There are fears that as China rushes to get the vaccine into poor countries, similar scandals could erupt, adding to the doubts.