TAIPEI – A pledge by China to supply 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to other countries this year expands the commitments made by a nation that is already the largest exporter of the shots by far.
President Xi Jinping made the announcement Thursday in a message to an international forum China organized on vaccine cooperation. He also promised to donate $100 million to COVAX, the program that aims to distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income countries,
“This means that China stands ready to provide safe and effective vaccines for nearly 10% of the population in the rest of the world," said Wang Xiaolong, the director general of the Foreign Ministry's Department of International Economic Affairs.
China has already delivered 770 million doses to foreign countries since September last year, Wang said at a briefing for foreign media Friday. Most of those have been exported under bilateral deals. Wang said that donated doses are in the tens of millions, but did not provide a precise figure.
The U.S. has donated 110 million doses, mostly through COVAX, the White House said earlier this week.
China's two biggest COVID vaccine makers, Sinopharm and Sinovac, have entered agreements to deliver up to 550 million doses through COVAX by the middle of next year. Wang said the first deliveries under the U.N.-backed program will be made this month to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Algeria.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese shots have been administered to people both in China and around the world. However, there are concerns about whether they protect adequately against the highly transmissible delta variant.
In Indonesia and Thailand, which have relied heavily on Sinovac's shot, the governments are planning to give a booster shot of the Moderna vaccine to health workers after reports that some had died despite being fully vaccinated with the Chinese shot.
The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, which both use inactivated viruses, have shown lower effectiveness against the delta variant but still provide some protection, according to Feng Zijian, an official at China's Center for Disease Control, who spoke to state broadcaster CCTV in June.
Most of the more than 1.7 billion vaccine doses that have been administered in China are from Sinopharm and Sinovac. China is currently fighting a widespread outbreak driven by the delta variant, which has infected people who have been vaccinated.
Sinovac published a study online in July, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, that showed a third booster shot given at least six months after the second shot could greatly increase antibody levels.
The company has submitted clinical research data to regulators for emergency use approval for new variations of its CoronaVac shot designed for the newer delta and gamma variants, CEO Yin Weidong announced at China's vaccine forum, which was held virtually.
CanSino, another private company whose one-shot vaccine is in use in Pakistan, Mexico and other countries, said it is working on adapting it for the variants. Its founder, Zhu Tao, said at a separate forum Thursday that the vaccine did show declines in effectiveness in lab tests against the delta variant, but that it is still protective.
Zhu said the company's latest research data show that a third booster shot would significantly raise antibody levels.
State-owned Sinopharm has told state media that it is developing vaccines tailored to four major variants, including the delta one.
Globally, vaccine distributions have been starkly unequal, as wealthy countries consider issuing booster shots to their citizens and poorer nations struggle to get enough vaccines for a first dose.
“Over 4 billion vaccines have been administered globally, but more than 75% of those have gone to just 10 countries,” World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the Chinese vaccine forum.
China has been accused of using vaccines as leverage in diplomatic dealings. In June, diplomats told The Associated Press that China had threatened to withhold vaccines to pressure Ukraine into withdrawing from a statement calling for more scrutiny of China's treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in its Xinjiang region.
U.S. President Joe Biden made a point of saying that American vaccine donations would come without “pressure for favors or potential concessions" when announcing U.S. donation plans in June.
Japan has also stepped up its donations in the region, pledging 30 million doses through COVAX and other channels. It has already donated several million doses through bilateral deals.
Taiwan was one beneficiary of Japan's aid, after the island faced an outbreak that stressed its health system in May and June. Taiwan accused China, which claims the self-governing island as its own territory, of interfering in deals to buy the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed.
This story has been corrected to say that China's announcement was made Thursday, not Wednesday.