The waning efficacy of China’s vaccines presents a ‘smart power’ opportunity for the West

The ‘Health Silk Road’ is the latest component in China’s soft power machinery. Through targeted donations of vaccines, medical equipment, and medical personnel to nations in need, Beijing has been seeking to capitalise on an opportunity to advance its interests during the coronavirus pandemic.

Vaccine Diplomacy in Action

A recent Chinese Government white paper on international development outlines the nation’s approach to global health. By offering foreign aid and assistance to promote a ‘global community of shared future’, China merges its humanitarian and geo-strategic objectives into a coherent model of global influence. What this ‘shared future’ looks like is evidenced by the nation’s extensive programme of so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’.

China’s initial vaccine donations and sales were concentrated in the Asia Pacific and Latin America. As early as November 2020, Chinese firms agreed to conduct clinical trials of its Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines in nations such as Brazil and the Philippines. Fast forward to today and China has delivered 1.3 billion doses of vaccine to 115 countries. In many instances, these vaccines are given without any obvious conditions, but in some cases, the expectations of a quid pro quo are more explicit. It is alleged, for instance, that Beijing offered Paraguay Chinese-made vaccines on the condition that it sever ties with Taiwan.

COVAX and Failing to Deliver

This rapid and self-promoting approach to vaccine distribution to the developing world contrasts markedly with the West’s more laggard donation pace. COVAX, the scheme to promote global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, had previously targeted the delivery of two billion vaccine doses by the close of 2021, although only around 910 million doses were delivered through the UN-backed initiative by the end of the year.

The scheme, which is the primary mechanism by which Western nations donate vaccines, has been dogged by supply-chain issues, with many developing nations lacking the infrastructure to quickly transport vaccines with urgent expiry dates in suitable conditions. In a joint statement by the African Union and Africa CDC, COVAX’s problems are laid bare: ‘the majority of the donations to-date have been ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives.’

Unlike our strategic rivals, the West has thus far broadly sidestepped an overt approach towards vaccine diplomacy. The French President Emmanuel Macron has stressed that vaccine donation is “not a power game – it’s a matter of public health”. In its recent paper ‘Health Systems Strengthening’, the UK FCDO is careful to avoid any reference to strategic vaccine donations. The same trend can be seen in the United States, with President Biden keen to emphasise that vaccine donations come with “no strings attached”.

China’s Vaccine Setbacks

More recently, however, China’s own vaccine diplomacy efforts have hit a stumbling block. The efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine, the most widely distributed Covid-19 vaccine in the world, has come under scrutiny, with researchers raising concern about the protection it offers against both the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus. The Singaporean Government has recently announced that even three doses of either Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines would not be enough to confer fully vaccinated status, having published new data that highlighted the outsized incidence of Covid-19 fatalities reported for those who received China-made vaccines. Surges in cases in countries previously reliant on Chinese-produced vaccine has stoked further unease.

The fallout from these efficacy questions has seen shipments of both Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines distributed by China through bilateral or multilateral deals, bilateral donations, and donations to COVAX, decline in the final months of 2021. According to data from UNICEF, exports fell from a peak of over 100 million doses per month for each vaccine over the summer, to around half of that in November and December 2021.

Where to Next?

With concerns around Sinovac and Sinopharm’s efficacy intensifying, the pressure falls on the Western-designed and -produced vaccines to lead the push to protect the lives of vulnerable people in the developing world and strengthen global collective resilience. Despite its challenges, the COVAX scheme represents a multilateral and collaborative instinct that is central to the West’s public health and soft power offering to the developing world, and there is now an opportunity and an imperative to turbo-charge its operations.

In addition to delivering effective vaccines to those in need, Western nations should work together on expanding technology transfer schemes and increasing vaccine manufacturing capacity in lower-income countries, help to address short-term need and encouraging longer-term self-sufficiency. Such efforts would provide structural benefits that go beyond the immediate public health challenge of the pandemic; boosting research and development capabilities in these countries could provide a long-lasting economic stimulus and support stronger public services, both of which will benefit their citizens into the future. Collaborative approaches such as these would promote global access to Western vaccines, fulfilling global health and soft power objectives in one breath. After all, decisions taken now will define which parts of the world are top-of-mind when, in the near future, developing nations reflect on who came to their aid at a time of crisis.


Sam Brown

Sam is the Research and Events Intern at the British Foreign Policy Group