China has officially joined the World Health Organisation's (WHO) COVAX alliance to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines around the globe, ending speculation that it plans to supply them on its own to developing countries to improve its image dented by the pandemic since it emerged in Wuhan in December last year.
According to the WHO, countries should join the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility) by September 18 but not later than October 9 with upfront payments.
'On October 8, China and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, signed an agreement, officially joining COVAX,' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement on Friday.
'This is an important step China has taken to uphold the concept of a shared community of health for all and to honour its commitment to turn COVID-19 vaccines into a global public good,' she said, apparently refuting reports that China plans to distribute the vaccines to developing countries on its own ahead of developed countries.
Hua later told a media briefing that China is finalising the modalities of its participation with officials of Gavi and agreed to buy 15 COVAX vaccines to administer them to the Chinese population.
"As far as I know, many Chinese vaccine companies have expressed willingness to join, and technical experts from both sides are currently in close communication about development, certification, supervision and other aspects," she said.
China has been in communication with COVAX parties and will purchase vaccine for 15 million people in China, this is based on the consensus reached by both sides and this is a good result for both, she said.
"Purchase of this percentage only accounts for one per cent of the national population but it demonstrates our support to the programme," Hua said, adding that any larger purchase by China to cover its 1.4 billion population would deprive the vaccine opportunity to people from a number of countries.
"If the participating population in China is too large then vaccines for other countries will be less. This is clear math. The 15 million is an appropriate number. This shows China's participation in this programme and accommodates the interests of other countries," she said.
Hua, however, did not directly respond to questions whether China would also simultaneously provide the vaccine to countries of its choice.
According to Gavi, total commitments from governments as well as from organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have reached $1.8 billion.
For its part, Gavi has welcomed China's participation.
'Delighted to welcome China to the #COVAX Facility! This announcement gives even more momentum to our mission to ensure future #COVID19 vaccines are distributed equitably because no one is safe until everyone is safe,' Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, tweeted.
WHO announced in August that '172 economies are now engaged in discussions to potentially participate in COVAX, a global initiative aimed at working with vaccine manufacturers to provide countries worldwide equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, once they are licensed and approved'.
China has already promised access and loans for potential vaccines to a number of lower and middle-income nations -- a move the Chinese leadership may see as a better bet for its diplomatic agenda than joining the WHO-backed scheme, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on September 23.
Elaborating on China's decision to join the global alliance, Hua said in her statement, 'China continues to focus on ensuring that developing countries have equal access to appropriate, safe and effective vaccines.
'To that end, we have solemnly pledged to make vaccines developed and deployed by China a global public good, which will be provided to developing countries as a priority.'
'Therefore, China has maintained close communication with COVAX with a positive attitude towards joining it. Even when China is leading the world with several vaccines in advanced stages of R&D and with ample production capacity, it still decided to join COVAX,' she said.
'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. China will also strengthen vaccine cooperation with relevant countries through the COVAX network,' she said.
China has roped in more than a dozen countries to conduct the final phase trials of Chinese-made experimental COVID-19 vaccines and even started vaccinating thousands of emergency workers, according to official media reports in Beijing.
Yang Sheng, Deputy Director of the National Medical Products Administration's drug registration bureau, said four China-developed COVID-19 vaccines have begun the final stage of human trials overseas after obtaining approval from foreign authorities.
China has been focusing on developing five types of vaccines, and each method has at least one entering clinical trials.
In total, 11 vaccine candidates are in different stages of testing, Yang has been quoted by the official media earlier.
Zheng Zhongwei, head of China's vaccine development task force said China's annual capacity to make COVID-19 vaccines was expected to reach 610 million doses this year and one billion doses by 2021.
WHO said nine candidate vaccines are currently being evaluated for inclusion in the COVAX Facility.