China pledged late Monday to provide 1 billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccines to Africa amid fears of the omicron variant and jockeying with the U.S. to be viewed as a responsible nation doing its part to battle the pandemic on the world stage.
President Xi Jinping announced the gift via a video address to open the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. He said 600 million of the doses will be donated while the remainder would be produced in joint ventures between Chinese and African companies.
China has used domestically produced vaccines to flex its global influence after it was criticized for its secretive handling of the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019 and its lack of cooperation with investigators looking into the virus’s origins.
The donation comes after South African scientists discovered the omicron variant, which has nearly 30 worrying mutations and may spread faster than other known variants. Scientists are trying to determine whether it causes severe disease — some early patients had mild symptoms — and if it punctures the protection offered by COVID-19 vaccines.
Only about 10% of Africa’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine compared to around 70% in the U.S. and European Union and 85% in China.
Some nations that used Chinese-produced vaccines have grumbled their effectiveness does not seem as powerful as the messenger-RNA ones used and donated by the U.S.
Yet China’s gift is part of broader diplomatic efforts to put a foothold in fast-developing Africa. State media in China used the donation to needle the U.S.
“Experts said China-Africa relations have been improving steadily while the U.S. increasingly eyes the continent as a geopolitical battlefield with no substantial input, but only lip service promises,” the Global Times reported.
Mr. Xi announced the donation one day after President Biden said the U.S. was the global leader in vaccine shipments to other lands.
“We’ve shipped — for free — more vaccines to other countries than all other countries in the world combined: over 275 million vaccines to 110 countries,” Mr. Biden said. “Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well.”
South Africa, in particular, says it needs more ancillary support to deliver vaccines, not more doses. Both the U.S. and China have pledged medical personnel to assist their effort.