Some small European governments are turning to China for Covid-19 vaccines as European Union procurement stumbles and Western vaccine makers’ production hiccups hamper the continent’s fight against the pandemic.
The trend could increase China’s influence in the region as it campaigns to present itself as a reliable ally in fighting the coronavirus that was first detected on its soil.
The European Union, which buys vaccines on behalf of its 27 member states, has authorized three shots developed in Germany, the U.S. and the U.K. But the bloc was slow to sign contracts and authorize the shots, while manufacturers have struggled to deliver the doses promised. Shortages have been even worse in non-EU countries in Europe.
So far, it is mainly small nations on the bloc’s margins that have turned to Beijing for help. Yet as voters’ frustrations mount, larger members are now considering China’s two vaccines and another developed in Russia.
On Jan. 31, German Health Minister Jens Spahn called on the EU to approve the shot made by China’s Sinopharm Group if it were found to be safe and effective. Then, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the company should manufacture its shots in his country.
China is developing a number of Covid-19 vaccines, with the main two made by the state-owned Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech Ltd., a smaller, private company. Both have reported good results for their shots, but no data have been released in peer-reviewed journals and neither company has sought EU-wide approval for its vaccine.
Last month, Hungary became the first EU member to separately authorize and buy Sinopharm’s shot, starting with five million doses to be delivered between February and April. The Czech Republic, also in the EU, is considering the same. Outside the bloc, Serbia was the first in Europe to start using the Chinese vaccine, while Montenegro and North Macedonia are due to roll it out this month.
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Senior officials from several European countries said China was offering initial shipments of one million doses deliverable within days of signing a contract—a contrast with Western companies that typically deliver over months and whose shipments have seen delays in Europe.
As a result, analysts say Beijing might expect to earn clout in a region where it competes with the U.S. for influence. Underlining the stakes, the Chinese government, not the manufacturers, has been leading talks with European buyers, according to European officials.
Non-European nations that have relied on Chinese vaccines, such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Morocco, have experienced delays in getting supplies. European clients of China’s state-run vaccine-maker have faced no such problems, however, with Sinopharm committing well over seven million doses to Hungary, Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro combined.
Beijing’s desire to enhance its footprint in the strategically important region could be behind the generous supply, said Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher with the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“When other European countries are inspired by Serbia to buy Chinese vaccines, then China’s foreign policy of boosting its soft power and buying influence is working,” Mr. Vuksanovic said.
Unlike the U.S. and the EU, which have focused first on immunizing their own populations, China signaled early on that it would share its vaccines widely. Last May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said the country would make its vaccines a “global public good.”
A government spokesman later added that Chinese vaccines would be offered to the world “at a fair and reasonable price.” China’s foreign ministry said Monday that it would provide vaccine aid to 53 countries.
Officials from European countries that have bought or are considering buying Chinese shots say an explicit quid pro quo was neither requested nor given. They also say their countries are thankful for the help in the absence of obvious alternatives.
After signing his country’s Chinese vaccine order, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán praised Beijing this week, saying Hungary was “grateful to the People’s Republic of China and President Xi personally for all the help in this challenging period.”
One official close to Mr. Orbán said that China was after a “political rather than commercial market” but that the EU’s late order and approval of vaccines for all member states—coupled with a U.S. ban on vaccine exports—had left Hungary with little choice.
Officials across a range of countries now considering buying vaccines from China pointed to Serbia as a source of inspiration.
The Balkan nation has offered its citizens a choice of Western, Russian and Chinese shots. So far, the country has administered eight doses for every 100 of its seven million inhabitants, compared with rates of 3.5 in France, 3.9 in Germany and 3.9 in the EU as a whole, according to data from Oxford University. Apart from Sinopharm’s shot, the vaccines on offer in Serbia include Russia’s Sputnik V as well as doses from Pfizer Inc. The vaccine from AstraZeneca PLC is due to arrive this month, and Serbian officials said they would also receive shots from Moderna Inc.
Serbia’s procurement effort started in September when Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and President Aleksandar Vučić approached major pharmaceutical groups as well as Western governments. The country’s first order was with Pfizer for more than 150,000 doses, and it secured a similar amount from AstraZeneca, yet the companies couldn’t provide more doses in the short term, Serbian officials said.
Mr. Vučić called Mr. Xi in October, later telling reporters he had begged Chinese leaders to supply enough vaccines. The deal was completed in late December, and the first shipment—one million shots—arrived Jan. 16.
While negotiating with China, Mr. Vučić also called Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also granted swift approval for a deal. Serbia then ordered more than 200,000 doses from Moscow, which arrived on Jan. 20.
Ms. Brnabić rejected suggestions that turning to China for help could undermine her country’s independence in the future, saying Serbia had a policy of equidistance between East and West. She said the government had decided early on to order vaccines from multiple sources because of concerns that larger, richer countries would secure priority access to Western shots. Ms. Brnabić said Serbia’s decision has enabled the country to offer citizens a “vaccine buffet.”
Zoran Radovanovic, a veteran Serbian epidemiologist and political commentator who has criticized the government in the past, said, “Our rollout has been better than anywhere in Europe…and objectively that’s because we went to China for vaccines.”
Write to Bojan Pancevski at email@example.com
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