In Bangladesh, Sinovac Biotech, a vaccine maker based in Beijing, is testing its vaccine on 4,200 health care workers in Dhaka, the capital. The Chinese company has agreed to provide over 110,000 free vaccine doses to the country, according to Dr. John D. Clemens, executive director of Bangladesh’s International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, which is helping conduct the trials.
That is a tiny fraction of the 170 million residents of Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest countries. And despite their participation in the Chinese clinical trials, Bangladeshis fear that the vaccines that result may be priced out of the reach of most of the country’s citizens.
“If any person in the world gets deprived of their right to a Covid-19 vaccine because of patent rights and profitability, this would be the biggest injustice in this century,” said Md. Sayedur Rahman, a professor of pharmacology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing has emphasized that China will not seek to establish a monopoly on vaccine supply. State news media reports have also rejected accusations that China is using vaccines as a diplomatic tool, while government-backed academics assert that the provision of vaccines is altruistic.
“There will certainly be no strings attached,” said Ruan Zongze, executive vice president of the
China Institute of International Studies. “Since it is going to be a global public good, adding any conditions would arouse suspicion from the other party.”
But China is already drawing concern in countries on the receiving end of its overtures, as well as from regional powers that view Beijing as encroaching on their spheres of influence.
In Nepal, where China would like to conduct clinical trials on 500 workers in a cement company, politicians have raised questions about the safety of the vaccines and the lack of transparency.
“Shouldn’t we be assured about its side effects?” Prakash Sharan Mahat, a former foreign minister of Nepal and a leader of the country’s main opposition party, Nepali Congress, said in an interview.
India, which is wary of Beijing’s intentions in South Asia, has responded to China’s offers of vaccines for Bangladesh and Nepal with its own pledges to provide its allies with vaccines.
Roman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock
Some countries may have few alternatives to China.
Indonesia has started a last-stage clinical trial for Sinovac on 1,620 volunteers and has signed an agreement with the Chinese company for 50 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine concentrate that would allow an Indonesian state-owned vaccine maker, PT Bio Farma, to produce doses locally.
Some political experts in Indonesia worry about the leverage that China would wield over the country, but they acknowledge that Indonesia has little choice.
“Should we be suspicious, or should we be grateful?” asked Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an academic at Universitas Islam Indonesia, who researches China’s foreign policy in Indonesia.