After the G7’s vaccine pledges, China will take the lead


By Bill Emmott, co-director, GCPPP, June 11th 2021

That is great for the world, but ought to be less cheering for the West if the goal of the Group of Seven’s vaccine pledges was one of re-establishing western leadership or at least prominent standing. 

Following the promises made by the G7 countries at their summit in Cornwall to donate one billion COVID vaccines to poor countries, we now know the big pandemic news of 2022. This is that the world will have been vaccinated far sooner than most now expect, chiefly thanks to Chinese donations and sales of vaccines, with some belated but welcome help from the West. Well done, China.

Is that too grudging? This is not a contest, of course: we all share an interest in getting the world vaccinated as soon as possible, for by doing so we will reduce the danger of new mutations of the virus emerging that are resistant to the vaccines and we will all be able to resume our normal lives more quickly. China and the West can and should both contribute to this. That is why the promise by President Joe Biden to donate 500 million vaccine doses during this year and next is truly welcome, as are the pledges by other western leaders to bring the number up to one billion.

Yet before beginning a typical bout of self-congratulation in the G7 countries (the United States, Britain, Canada, Italy, France, Germany and Japan) for our leaders’ supposed vision and generosity we need to put this pledge into context. That context concerns both real world supply and real world demand, neither of which match the G7’s presumed timetable. During May, the great news for global vaccination efforts was that monthly production nearly doubled, from 420 million doses in April to 822 million in May. More than half of that total, 454 million doses, was produced by two Chinese companies, Sinovac and Sinopharm, which trebled their output.

Output in the European Union also rose strongly, doubling to 164 million doses, and that in the United States also grew, by about 40%, to 71 million. What this means is that, although the main western vaccines have shown higher efficacy than the Chinese ones, they are not leading the way. China is the world’s leading COVID vaccine producer. And Chinese supply will become available much sooner than the western donated jabs.

Until now, Chinese donations and sales outside its borders have been just as modest as have the western ones as China wants to vaccinate its own people first. That is what it is currently doing, at about 17 million-20 million doses every day, which accounts for more than half of the 34-36 million being administered daily around the world. Pretty soon, at its present rate of 600 million doses per month, most of China’s 1.4 billion population will have been vaccinated. Taking just the adults, and subject to the gap between doses as well as to progress in rural areas, this is likely to be completed by the end of August or soon afterwards.

Meanwhile Sinovac and Sinopharm will continue to increase their production. As a result by September or October at least half a billion Chinese doses will likely be available every month for donation and sale to the rest of the world. Therefore, we can place President Biden’s generous offer of 200 million Pfizer/BioNTech doses this year and 300 million next year, and Boris Johnson’s offer of 100 million sometime in the next 12 months, in a proper context. By mid-Autumn, these welcome offers will nevertheless be equivalent to barely one month’s surplus Chinese production.

That is great for the world, but ought to be less cheering if the goal of the G7’s vaccine pledges is one of re-establishing western leadership or at least prominent standing. Admittedly, we don’t yet know how generous China will actually be with its vaccine doses or whether Chinese firms will simply seek to profit from export sales as a market opportunity. The West has been far more generous in contributing funds to the global COVAX initiative to buy vaccines for poorer countries, so perhaps western money will now end up simply buying Chinese vaccines. But the opportunity is nevertheless there for China to win more friends, by meeting pent-up demand from poor countries sooner than the G7’s supplies can do so.

In coming months and years the pandemic is going to produce other challenges which will require the West to step up, in the hope that China will do so too, most notably as and when a likely debt restructuring becomes necessary for countries with fragile public finances in Africa and South America. This vaccine precedent, however, suggests that the West remains a follower of events rather than truly the leader it likes to think of itself as.

Let us not end up too negative, however. Thanks to abundant Chinese vaccines, assisted by the G7’s pledged donations, the chances now are that the world could achieve vaccination of the 80% of adults believed necessary for herd immunity by the middle of 2022 at the latest, and probably sooner.

Just maintaining, not even improving upon, the current daily vaccination rate of 17-20 million doses in China and 16-18 million elsewhere would get the world to that target, according to the Global Commission’s  vaccine countdown, between January and July 2022. Now that vaccine supplies are less scarce, the main need is for overseas aid to help poor African and Central American countries to administer the vaccines. We are almost there.

Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

We now publish a weekly newsletter to inform friends and supporters of the Global Commission’s progress and to provide updates when new content is published. Please sign up here:

Previous arguments