Earlier this month, the head of a well-known, privately-owned Chinese conglomerate told his staff that a vaccine for Covid-19 was expected to come to market by November.
The boss, whose firm has a healthcare division, said that he saw it as a portent of economic recovery; a chance for his firms to sell more, according to a person privy to the comments. Within a few weeks the Chinese government was forced to go public with its apparent progress.
The novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 originated in humans in China, before it spread ceaselessly across the world. Now China is using its global footprint in a relentless effort to win the race to develop and deploy an effective vaccine.
Last week one of the developmental vaccines was pictured in state-run media; a small branded box was shown, held up by a smiling woman in a lab. Sinopharm said it hopes to have it ready to go on sale by December. It even named a price, equivalent to about $140 (£106).
Official and secret trials
China’s determination is out there for all to see.
We know that half of the leading six candidate vaccines being tested in the final stage of mass trials across the world are Chinese. These global trials are a necessity.
Ironically, China is not in a position to test the vaccines on the required scale at home because it’s been so successful at containing the spread of the virus within its borders.
“All vaccine manufacturers are looking for sites for their phase three trials (in which the vaccine is given to thousands of people) where Covid-19 is still circulating at relatively higher rates,” Professor Ben Cowling from the Hong Kong University Public School of Health told me.
He’s optimistic about all the vaccines currently in development, including the Chinese ones.
“I think all of the vaccines currently in phase three have a good chance of being found to be effective.”
China – like Russia, and like some in the White House want to – has gone a step further though.
A senior Chinese health official revealed the extent of that last weekend when he confirmed that China has been secretly testing vaccines on key public workers since last month.
Zheng Zhongwei from the National Health Commission told state-run television that emergency powers permitting the use of unapproved developmental vaccines allowed officials at the border and in other areas to be given a vaccine.
Being first may not be everything, ability to scale up will be key. “I think there could be a few vaccines that come to market by December but I’m not sure if they will be available in large quantities,” Prof Cowling said.
He thinks summer 2021 is more likely to be the time when entire populations can be immunised against Covid-19.
There are varying levels of experimentation. China has already confirmed it is involved in official, advanced trials of a vaccine on thousands of people in countries including the UAE, Peru and Argentina.
This is part of a series of well-documented global collaborations between governments and pharmaceutical firms.
Then there’s unpublicised trials. In what appears to be linked to the emergency powers vaccination experiments, and not the official phase three trials, a group of Chinese miners were refused entry to Papua New Guinea recently after their employer revealed it was using them for vaccine trials.
Some 48 workers were injected in early August, according to a statement from the Chinese state-owned company that runs the mine in the Pacific islands nation.
The PNG authorities were concerned they’d been kept in the dark and that some of the workers may have tested positive for Covid-19.
‘Vaccine diplomacy’ as propaganda?
There is ambiguity about what China will do with the vaccine if and when it has it. The English language version of the official government report into how China tackled the outbreak states “the Covid-19 vaccine [is] to be used as a global public product once it is developed and deployed in China”.
China has signalled that countries in Africa and its nearby neighbours in South East Asia would be the first to benefit from a Chinese-developed vaccine, once it has been rolled out in China. But some also see diplomatic leverage at play.
One senior European diplomat pointed to what they saw as China’s clumsy propaganda efforts during its “mask diplomacy” in Serbia and Italy, where it had sent health kits as the outbreak worsened.
They warned that “vaccine diplomacy”, with China potentially in a hugely influential position, could be far more calculated.
“They have invested a great deal in vaccine research,” Prof Cowling said about China, “and it is paying off now”.