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UN Health Agency Slams ‘Vaccine Nationalism’ as China Claims Victory

The World Health Organization warned against “vaccine nationalism” on Tuesday at a moment when the race to vaccinate world populations against the novel coronavirus is entering a new combative phase after China joined Russia in declaring it has developed a vaccine against the virus.

(CN) — The World Health Organization warned against “vaccine nationalism” on Tuesday at a moment when the race to vaccinate world populations against the novel coronavirus is entering a new combative phase after China joined Russia in declaring it has developed a vaccine against the virus.

The dual announcements by Russia and China, adversaries to the U.S. and its allies, adds pressure on others to move even faster to develop their own vaccines, despite warnings from experts against cutting corners. Seven vaccines are at advanced clinical trials, according to the WHO. The United Nations health agency has not endorsed any vaccine yet as safe and efficient.

Medical experts in the United States and Europe are casting doubt about the claims by China and Russia, saying their vaccines have not been properly vetted. Most troubling, the makers of the Russian vaccine did not provide data showing the drug is safe and the drug was approved less than two months after human testing.

On Tuesday, the head of the WHO urged world leaders to collaborate on the distribution of vaccines.

“We need to prevent vaccine nationalism,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing at the global health agency's Geneva headquarters. “While there is a wish amongst leaders to protect their own people first, the response to this pandemic has to be collective.”

The WHO wants the world to join an initiative it's leading to distribute vaccines and medicines around the globe equitably and at affordable prices. The U.N. agency says this is the best strategy to end a pandemic with a global death toll nearing 780,000 and an economic toll in the trillions of dollars, the worst economic collapse since the end of World War II.

Tedros said that once an effective and safe vaccine has been found, a WHO committee will convene to provide recommendations on its use and distribution. He said it is crucial that vaccines are rolled out “simultaneously to reduce overall risk.”

Initially, he said vaccines should go to people older than 65 years of age and to those suffering health problems, two groups of people considered to be at the most risk from the virus. He said this high-risk population amounts to about 20% of the inhabitants in most countries. He added that people working in the health sector should also be given priority in the distribution of vaccines.

“Sharing finite supplies strategically and globally is actually in each country's national interest,” Tedros said. “Like an orchestra, we need all instruments to be played in harmony to create music that everyone enjoys. One or two instruments playing by themselves just wouldn't suffice while the world is waiting and listening intently.”

But it's far from certain that the world will listen to the U.N. health agency and come together as a band.

Over the weekend, Chinese media reported a vaccine developed in part by the Chinese military will be given a patent. The patent was awarded to CanSino Biologics, a privately owned Chinese company that developed the vaccine in partnership with China's Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

This May 4, 2020 photo from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, receives an injection. Only about half of Americans say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if the scientists working furiously to create one succeed, according to a poll conducted May 14-18 by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. (University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP)

The vaccine uses an adenovirus to achieve immunity and a Chinese military infectious disease expert, Chen Wei, was behind its development. Global Times, a Chinese news outlet affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, said granting the patent “provides official confirmation of the vaccine's efficacy and safety.”

Global Times also reported Tuesday that two other Chinese vaccines will be ready by the end of December. Critics say China is trying to make up for its failures in containing the initial outbreak of the virus last winter in the industrial city of Wuhan by moving quickly to approve vaccines. 

A week ago, Russia drew rebukes when it announced approval for a vaccine that had not even completed human testing. In doing so, Russia became the first nation to officially register a vaccine against Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

President Vladimir Putin said his daughter had taken the vaccine, which was named Sputnik V, an homage to the world's first satellite launched by the Soviet Union. The vaccine was tested on Russian soldiers and made by Gamaleya Research Institute, which is part of the Russian Ministry of Health. Russia has said the vaccine likely will be available for the general public by January.

Already, some governments, including Mexico and the Philippines, are welcoming the Russian and Chinese vaccines with their leaders saying they will encourage their populations to use them.

“If Russia and China get the first vaccines, and if they are shown to be efficient in saving human lives, we will immediately establish communication with them,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday at a news conference. “I’d be the first to be vaccinated.”

Lopez Obrador said ideology should not be a factor in such an important matter and that “health comes before anything else.”

Similarly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have come out and volunteered to get injected with the Russian vaccine.

China and Russia now are accused of seeking to use their vaccines as political weapons by supplying their drugs first to allies and nations they consider strategically critical.

China and Chinese companies have made vaccine deals with the Philippines, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan, among others. The Chinese government and drugmakers are behind three of the vaccine candidates in final stages of human testing.

Other candidates in the final stages are being developed by companies based in the U.S., United Kingdom and Germany. Those companies have entered their own deals with nations around the world and signed major deals with the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union to supply enormous amounts of doses of vaccines when they are approved.

Bruce Alyward, a WHO senior adviser leading the agency's vaccine initiative, said it is too early to know which vaccine candidates “are truly going to protect people against the disease.”

He said more than 170 countries representing more than 70% of the world's population have shown an interest to join the WHO's initiative for a global distribution of vaccines. At Tuesday's news conference, he declined to discuss the apparent unwillingness of the U.S. and China to join the initiative.

He said there are ways to ensure that vaccines can be distributed fairly and affordably around the world and still not undermine deals individual nations have signed with drugmakers to get priority access to the vaccine doses they want.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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