China may use access to COVID-19 vaccine for geopolitical leverage

China is dangling early access to a coronavirus vaccine it hopes to develop to select countries as Beijing tries to shore up strategic relationships strained by the pandemic, according to a report.

China’s Foreign Ministry notified the Philippines that it would have priority access to a COVID vaccine, and Sinovac Biotech Ltd., a private Chinese firm, will work with Brazil and Indonesia to produce hundreds of millions of doses for their use, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

China also worked out a deal with Pakistan, one of its closest allies, to allow China National Pharmaceutical Group to conduct clinical trials in the country in exchange for receiving doses to distribute to about a fifth of its 220 million population, the report said.

Russia could also produce a vaccine developed by China’s military if the Russian health ministry gives its approval.

Of the six vaccine candidates in the final stages of testing, Chinese state-owned and private companies are involved in three, the newspaper reported, citing the World Health Organization.

The remaining three are being developed by companies in the US, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Beijing earlier this year began selling masks and medical supplies to countries in an effort to generate goodwill after the Communist Party was criticized for its irresponsible handling of the coronavirus following the first cases being reported in Wuhan.

Thomas J. Bollyky, director of global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the newspaper that vaccines will be more limited than the supply of masks in the initial stages of production.

“It will be on another level,” he said. “That is why vaccine nationalism starts to bite.”

Claims by Russia that it had developed a coronavirus vaccine were met with widespread skepticism, and the WHO said it would review the findings.

But Moscow said up to 20 countries have already reached out requesting access.

The tactic comes with serious consequences on the world stage for China.

“It could get embarrassing if a vaccine doesn’t work, or if there are safety problems later on, or if companies are unable to deliver the supply they promised,” John J. Donnelly, principal at California-based Vaccinology Consulting LLC, told the Wall Street Journal.

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