China, eager to build goodwill, stepped in and pledged to provide more than 255 million doses, according to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based research firm.
Six months later, however, that campaign has lost some of its luster. Officials in several countries have expressed doubts about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines, especially against the more transmissible Delta variant. Indonesia, which accepted early Chinese shots, has recently been the epicenter of the virus. Others have complained about the conditions associated with Chinese donations or sales.
The setback of China’s vaccine campaign has led to a diplomatic opening for the United States as relations between the two countries become increasingly fraught, in part because of the coronavirus. China has criticized the US’s handling of the crisis domestically, even claiming with… no proof, that the pandemic originated in a military lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, not Wuhan, where the first cases emerged in late 2019.
With more countries turning away from Chinese injections, vaccine aid from the United States offers an opportunity to restore relations in a region that US officials have largely ignored for years as China expanded its influence. The Biden administration has sent a crowd of senior officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who will arrive on Sunday to visit Singapore and Vietnam. It has also finally made its own vaccine commitments to Southeast Asia, stressing that the US contribution of about 23 million injections as of this week comes “without obligation”, an implicit reference to China.
Several countries in the region are eager to receive the more effective, western doses. While they are far outnumbered by Chinese shots, they are an attractive alternative. China’s “early lead has already lost its magic,” said Hoang Thi Ha, a researcher at the Asean Studies center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
For most of the year, many developing countries in Southeast Asia had little choice when it came to vaccines. They struggled to obtain doses, many of which were made by wealthier countries accused of hoarding them.
China tried to meet those needs. The country’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, traveled through the region in January and pledged to help fight the pandemic. In April, he stated that Southeast Asia was a priority for Beijing. About a third of the 33 million doses that China has distributed for free worldwide have been sent to the region, according to Bridge Consulting figures.
Much of Beijing’s attention has focused on the more populous countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and its long-standing allies such as Cambodia and Laos.
Indonesia was China’s largest customer in the region, purchasing 125 million doses of Sinovac. The Philippines received 25 million Sinovac shots after the president, Rodrigo Duterte, said he turned to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, for help. Cambodia received more than 2.2 million Chinese Sinopharm doses. It has vaccinated about 41 percent of its population and has achieved the second highest vaccination rate in the region after Singapore.
Then signs came that the Chinese vaccines were not as effective as hoped. Indonesia found that 10 percent of its health workers had become infected with Covid-19 in July despite being fully vaccinated with the Sinovac injection, according to the Indonesian Hospital Association.
In July, a virologist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok said a study of people who had received two doses of the Sinovac vaccine showed that their levels of antibodies, 70 percent, were “barely effective” against the alpha variant of the coronavirus. , which was first discovered in July. Great Britain, or against the Delta variant, first discovered in India.
The governments in both Indonesia and Thailand decided that they should switch to other vaccines, such as those from the United States, Britain and Russia.
“Now that they have more choices, they can make different decisions,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington. “I don’t think it’s politically motivated. I think it’s pragmatic.”
Yaowares Wasuwat, a noodle seller in the Thai province of Bangsaen Chonburi, said she hoped to get the AstraZeneca vaccine for her second shot after being vaccinated with Sinovac, but would take what was available.
“I have nothing to lose,” she said. “The economy is so bad, we are gasping for air. It’s like dying while you’re alive, so just take all the protection we can.”
China’s early steps in the region are in stark contrast to the United States, which has been slow to provide aid.
Understand the status of vaccine and mask mandates in the US
- Mask Rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in July that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places in areas with outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. Find out where CDC guidelines apply and where states have their own masking policies. The battle over masks has become controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- Vaccine rules. . . and Buselessness. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, taking different approaches. Such mandates are permitted by law and have been confirmed in court proceedings.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are demanding that students be vaccinated against Covid-19. Nearly all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
- schools. On August 11, California announced that teachers and staff at both public and private schools should be vaccinated or tested regularly, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey published in August found that many U.S. parents of school-aged children are opposed to mandatory vaccines for students, but were more in favor of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff who have not received their injections.
- Hospitals and Medical Centers. Many hospitals and major health systems require workers to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, citing the increasing caseload fueled by the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination coverage in their communities, even within their workforce.
- New York. On August 3, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced proof of vaccination would be required from employees and customers for indoor meals, gyms, performances and other indoor settings, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a wide variety of activities. . City hospital employees should also receive a vaccine or be tested weekly. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced it would seek to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for the country’s 1.3 million active troops “by mid-September”. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
The calculus has now changed under President Biden. Both Lloyd J. Austin III, the US Secretary of Defense, and Antony J. Blinken, the Secretary of State, had meetings with top officials in Southeast Asia in recent weeks. They recorded the donations of about 20 million shots.
After Mr. Austin visited the Philippines, Manila reinstated a defense deal that had been in limbo for more than a year after Mr. Duterte threatened to terminate it. The agreement, which would continue to allow US troops and equipment to be transported to and from the Philippines, could thwart China’s goal to drive the US military out of the region.
Part of the reason for Mr. Duterte’s turnaround: the delivery of millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines.
Still, some Southeast Asian analysts have doubts about Washington’s belated vaccine diplomacy.
“The fact remains that the US has been very slow,” said Elina Noor, director of political security affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “And since rich countries were hoarding vaccines when they became available, I think the sour taste still lingers.”
China is still seen as a reliable supplier for the vaccines it has produced. It delivered 86 percent of the doses it promised to sell. And concerns remain that US companies are slow to deliver. For those reasons, most Southeast Asian countries have not openly criticized China — nor have they given up on Chinese vaccines.
Anti-Chinese sentiment is running high in Vietnam, but the country accepted a donation of 500,000 doses of Sinopharm in June, sparking a backlash among citizens who said they did not trust the quality of Chinese shots.
“Even in the midst of this emergency, I have no reason to trade my life or that of my family for a Chinese vaccine,” said Nguyen Hoang Vy, a health operations manager at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh city.
It later emerged that the donated Sinopharm shots were intended for priority groups outlined by Beijing, reinforcing cynicism toward China.
“There are always some conditions attached to it,” said Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, specializing in Southeast Asia, referring to China’s vaccine deals.
Vietnam continues to fight an outbreak and vaccines remain scarce. Despite the earlier public anger, a private Vietnamese company acquired five million doses of Sinopharm for distribution, which local authorities began administering this month.
Muktita Suhartono and Vo Kieu Bao Uyen reported. Claire Fu and Elsie Chen research contributed.