Coronavirus: China plans cold-chain bridge to ship and distribute vaccines to African nations

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CHINA is preparing to supply its coronavirus vaccines to African countries with Addis Ababa expected to be the logistical hub with Egypt and Morocco as manufacturing centres.

Beijing is building a logistical network, which includes a cold-chain air bridge from Shenzhen to Ethiopia. Early December, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s logistics arm

Cainiao Global said it had established the country’s first cross-border cold-chain route with Ethiopian Airlines, ready for the shipment of Covid-19 vaccines and other drugs.

The facility features an ultra-low temperature that would enable the transport of coronavirus vaccines to Africa. The cargo would be sent from Shenzhen to Africa weekly and then shipped to other countries via Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian Airlines was key early in the pandemic for transporting coronavirus testing kits and medical supplies donated by the Chinese government and other donors such as Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Stephen Chan, a professor of politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, said: ‘Addis Ababa is a good hub since its air transport links are excellent and the Ethiopians have established a more equal negotiating relationship with China than most – so Ethiopia is trusted as a middle man.’

Chan said China was distributing its vaccine as a form of foreign aid. Other countries, including Britain, had offered to do the same, albeit – at this stage – on a much smaller scale.

Similarly, Shenzhen-based logistics firms China International Marine Containers and SF Express have developed facilities that enabled the movement of vaccines and drugs to other countries.

Analysts say Beijing could leverage the coronavirus vaccines to assert China ‘as a global peer and ally’ to achieve diplomatic and economic benefits.

The Atlantic Council think tank said that amid the Covid-19 crisis, ‘Beijing has attempted to take a leadership role in coordinating and providing humanitarian assistance, asserting “donation diplomacy” to acquire political capital and legitimacy worldwide and in Africa.’

Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in the United States, sees China using its vaccine not simply for purely humanitarian purposes, but also to achieve diplomatic and economic benefits.

‘China is likely to use the vaccine to gain influence in Africa and elsewhere,’ he said.

He said this might just be ‘soft’ influence, by projecting its narrative of technological and political superiority over the West, or ‘hard’ influence, seeking economic or geostrategic benefits, such as natural resources, trade deals or even military benefits.

Egypt has received two shipments of coronavirus vaccines totalling 100,000 doses manufactured by Chinese firm China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) from the United Arab Emirates, which has been carrying out phase 3 clinical trials of the vaccine.

China’s top Africa diplomat, Wu Peng, was glad Egypt had received its shipment of vaccines developed by Sinopharm.

‘China will actively consider providing vaccines to other African countries in need to help secure an early victory against the virus,’ Wu tweeted.

Further, Egypt’s Health Minister Hala Zayed said late December that Cairo had obtained legislative approval to produce the Chinese Sinovac vaccine. It is negotiating with Sinovac to manufacture the vaccine in the North African country which would become the hub for vaccine production and distribution for the continent.

Morocco is using a Chinese vaccine to inoculate 80 per cent of its adults. The country has ordered 10 million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine and also plans to produce the vaccine locally.

In the Horn of Africa, Sudan has ordered 8.4 million Covid-19 vaccines from China to be distributed in the first quarter of 2021.

There is growing anxiety in Africa that  many countries will not gain full access to affordable vaccines until after the rich world has vaccinated its own citizens. London-based consultancy Capital Economics said the roll-out of vaccines would probably be slower in sub-Saharan Africa compared to other parts of the world, delaying a ‘vaccine bounce’ economic recovery.

‘Most African countries will have to rely on the multilateral Covax facility, which is unlikely to distribute vaccines as quickly compared with those countries that have made advanced purchases from manufacturers,’ it said.

Beijing has promised to make Africa a priority for its vaccines, which it described as a public good.

At the opening ceremony of the 14th senior officials’ meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in December, Deng Li, China’s assistant minister for foreign affairs, promised that once China’s Covid-19 vaccines were developed and deployed, Beijing would “actively consider providing them to African countries in need, as a concrete measure to help our African friends defeat the virus at an early date.’

David Shinn, of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the two American vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – were being distributed according to contracts signed with governments.

‘Much of the Pfizer vaccine is going, for example, to Europe. One reason for this is that it must be kept at ultra-low temperatures until injection. Few developing countries can maintain the low temperatures,’ he said.

But, Gostin said it was likely that Africa would start receiving Covid-19 vaccines in January or February. However, doses will be extremely scarce.

African countries were likely to get vaccines from China, Russia and Covax, he said.

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