Saving the best for last: China's Sinopharm vaccine approval
Stephen Ndegwa
A signage of Sinopharm is seen at the 2020 China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, September 5, 2020. /Reuters

A signage of Sinopharm is seen at the 2020 China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, September 5, 2020. /Reuters

Editor's note: Stephen Ndegwa is a Nairobi-based communication expert, scholar and lecturer at the United States International University-Africa, author and international affairs columnist. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The approval of China's much-awaited vaccine by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 7 could not have come at a more opportune moment as the COVID-19 pandemic continues taking its toll in various hotspots globally.

So far, Sinopharm is the only vaccine developed by a non-Western country approved by the WHO for emergency use. As luck or fate would have it, depending on one's ideological standpoint, this places China in an ideal position to execute its oft repeated promise to offer the approved vaccine as a public good.

When joining the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) in October 2020, the Chinese foreign ministry stated in a statement that it had taken "this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries" and hoped more capable countries would also join in and support the initiative.

Sinopharm's official entry into the COVAX stable will now ramp up current inadequate efforts in fighting the pandemic by increasing vaccine production and distribution to perennially underserved poor countries. The status quo has overstretched the latter's health sector and hampered economic recovery efforts.

But even before Sinopharm's approval, China was already on the ground alleviating the dire global situation with concrete actions. As of April, China had provided vaccine aid to 80 countries, exported vaccines to more than 40 countries and partnered with more than 10 developing nations in vaccine research, development and production.

Indeed, the development has also come at the height of vaccine nationalism by developed countries, which have been accused of hoarding excess supplies as poor countries desperately run low on the jabs. Ever since the rolling out of vaccines, the WHO has constantly requested rich nations to think about the plight of those unable to develop their own vaccines.

On March 26, WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made an earnest plea to the global community to donate at least 10 million vaccines to COVAX for the benefit of developing countries. "Bilateral deals, export bans and vaccine nationalism have caused distortions in the market with gross inequities in supply and demand," said Tedros at a virtual news conference in Geneva.

As late as April, World Bank President David Malpass called on countries to contribute their "excess" doses of COVID-19 vaccine to low-income countries, noting that the lion's share of vaccines distributed globally is so far domiciled in wealthier nations.

Packages of COVID-19 vaccine by Beijing Institute of Biological Products of Sinopharm's China National Biotec Group are displayed, February 26, 2021. /Reuters

Packages of COVID-19 vaccine by Beijing Institute of Biological Products of Sinopharm's China National Biotec Group are displayed, February 26, 2021. /Reuters

Kenya is a clear case of the rising anxiety caused by diminishing vaccine stocks. Even before the current health crisis facing India with the spiraling infections and deaths from the pandemic, in March, Kenya was forewarned of the vaccine embargo from the Serum Institute of India, COVAX's biggest supplier. Currently, hundreds of thousands of people who had received their first dose have to wait more than the stipulated period. Meanwhile, the first vaccinations for millions of the non-vaccinated population are being held in abeyance.   

Moreover, the emerging variants are not offering any respite even for the most vaccinated nations like Seychelles, which has fully vaccinated more than 60 percent of its adult population with two doses of COVID-19 vaccines. On May 5, the country's government reverted to bans and restrictions similar to those imposed in December 2020 after the country recorded an upsurge of infections from 612 on April 28 to 1,068 on May 3.

With the expected show of solidarity by developed countries to try and outshine China's limelight, it is hoped that the former will not engage in vaccine dumping. Even with the worsening shortage, several countries are withholding stocks of vaccines they do not intend to use due to safety concerns.

An article published in Russia's RT media network on April 15 claimed that Denmark was planning to share AstraZeneca COVID vaccines with poorer nations after declaring the jabs had adverse effects on its citizens. The WHO's European head, Hans Kluge, acknowledged Denmark's predicament, saying that "the ministry of foreign affairs of Denmark is ready to, or looking already into options" ostensibly for distributing the suspect jabs to countries in need.

Indeed, the world can be confident of China's oft repeated claims to work for the good and betterment of humankind regardless of race, creed or color. The country did not engage in contestations or cast aspersions on WHO in what would otherwise have been misconstrued as an inordinate delay in the approval of its vaccine. The country let due process and other red tape go full circle, at least for the sake of those who have specialized in spreading conspiracy theories on China's culpability in the origin and spread of the pandemic.

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