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China Plans To Sell COVID-19 Vaccines To Other Countries

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China has five COVID-19 vaccines in phase 3 trials. One has been given conditional approval. Of course, China has a huge population to inoculate at home, but its government is also pledging to provide its vaccines to lots of other countries. To catch us up now on how all of that is going to work out, we're joined now by NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch.

Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: Hi. OK. So China has - what's the latest count? - 1.4 billion people total. Is the country focusing on vaccinating its own population first?

RUWITCH: Yeah. It's doing both. It's focusing on the domestic population, and it's also looking abroad. You know, China took quite strong measures early on in the pandemic and has mostly, mostly brought it under control at home since late spring. So, you know, they've done some emergency vaccinations since the summer. And as you say, one of their vaccines was recently approved for broader use. So they're targeting 50 million vaccinations by mid-February, early February.

Because the pandemic's largely under control there, the efficacy trials for these vaccines that are being developed have been done abroad in more than a dozen countries across the globe. And in May, Xi Jinping, the leader of China, said that any vaccine that comes out of China is going to be a global public good - right? - with priority on developing countries. So it's already in use in Bahrain and the UAE, which had been testing it and approved this vaccine in December. But the phase 3 data hasn't been released yet for any of these vaccines under development. And that's going to be key, experts say, because that's the step that's going to open the door...

CHANG: Right.

RUWITCH: ...To the WHO blessing, basically.

CHANG: Right. OK. So it sounds like China has made providing these vaccines to other countries a priority. Why is that?

RUWITCH: Yeah. To understand this, I spoke with Nadege Rolland, who's a former French defense ministry official who's an expert in Chinese foreign policy at the National Bureau of Asian Research. And she put it succinctly.

NADEGE ROLLAND: China always frames its cooperative relationship with other countries in that win-win - so-called win-win framework, which means that there must be a win for China as well.

RUWITCH: So first and foremost, China has been struggling with a bit of an image problem. It mishandled the beginning of the outbreak, and public opinion about China deteriorated pretty sharply around the world. Longer-term, though, you know, this is a way for China to expand soft power - that's how they see it - and expand ties beyond economics and trade, which have been China's calling card.

There's money to be made here, too. The vaccines aren't free, even though China has promised reasonable prices. And if it all goes well, it's a big step for biotech in China. This is a strategic sector. The government's identified it as such. They poured money into it. And a vaccine could go a long way to helping that sector.

CHANG: Right. OK. So who's interested right now in getting Chinese vaccines? You said developing countries mostly.

RUWITCH: Yeah. Yeah. A handful of countries in Southeast Asia and Africa are interested, some in Latin America. You know, to understand it, let's take a look at Chile, for example, right? Chile was hit hard by the pandemic. They need all the help they can get. They're already deploying the Pfizer vaccine, but my understanding is that they're open to the Chinese one as well, which has been undergoing trials there.

I talked with Jorge Heine, who's a former Chilean ambassador to China, who now teaches at Boston University. And he pointed out that China is Chile's biggest trade partner. It's its biggest investment source. It donated PPE to Latin America and money throughout this pandemic. And, you know, China has really just been present. And he says it's all connected.

JORGE HEINE: What you have is a situation in which, you know, there are strong links with China. And you know, I would argue that the vaccines are part of that great presence.

RUWITCH: And an effective, affordable, available vaccine from China is only going to strengthen those links.

CHANG: That is NPR's John Ruwitch.

Thank you, John.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.