Xi vows China will share vaccine, strikes contrast with Trump

Corinne Gretler

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make any coronavirus vaccine universally available once it’s developed, part of an effort to defuse criticism of his government’s response to a pandemic that has killed more than 315,000 people around the world.

In a speech on Monday to the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the Geneva-based World Health Organization, Xi pledged support for Africa and called for greater international cooperation in fighting the pandemic. He also said China will provide $2 billion over two years to support the fight, especially in developing countries.

In this file photo taken Monday, March 19, 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a plenary session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

“Covid-19 vaccine development and deployment in China, when available, will be made a global public good, which will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries,” Xi said via video.

China has come under fire from the U.S., European Union and Australia over its initial handling of the outbreak and subsequent heavy-handed response to any criticism. Xi’s full-fledged backing of the WHO helps burnish his credentials as upholding the international order in contrast with the Trump administration, which suspended funding for the global health body after accusing it of being biased toward China.

China faces angry world seeking virus answers at key WHO meeting

Xi’s pledge to make any vaccine universally available comes amid growing concern that countries will put national interests first in the quest for a protective shot, seen as the key to getting economies moving again. The EU’s own proposal to the assembly struck a similar tone, highlighting the need for all countries to have “unhindered timely access” to shots, medicines, diagnostics and any other technologies needed to fight the pandemic.

Among the dozens of vaccine projects under way worldwide, China has five candidates already in human trials. More will enter such tests next month.

No ego’

U.S. President Donald Trump last week introduced “Operation Warp Speed,” a crash effort to develop a vaccine that would be available by the end of the year. While he said the U.S. had “no ego” when it comes to the vaccine and would cooperate with a range of countries, he repeatedly emphasized the need to get it to Americans.

“When a vaccine is ready, the U.S. government will deploy every plane, truck, and soldier required to help distribute it to the American people as quickly as possible,” Trump said.

Trump, facing an election in November, has regularly blamed China for failing to prevent the virus from spreading beyond its borders after it was first discovered in the central city of Wuhan. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said in a television appearance Sunday that the country sent “hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed” it.

In his speech, Xi repeated his government’s assertions that China acted with transparency and responsibility all along, and provided information to the WHO and countries in the most timely fashion. While Xi said the world needs “to continue supporting global research by scientists on the source and transmission of virus,” his government has resisted calls led by the EU and Australia for an investigation into the virus’s origins.

Seeking source

“The vast majority of countries believe that the epidemic situation is not over,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing in Beijing, responding to a question on whether China supports an inquiry into an independent investigation. Anti-epidemic cooperation “is a top priority,” he said, “so the time to immediately start reviewing and tracing the virus’s origins is not yet ripe.”

The WHO said this month that it’s sought discussions on a new mission to China to seek the source of the virus. International experts were part of a previous delegation to the country in February, at the height of China’s outbreak.

The EU’s draft resolution, backed by countries including Brazil, Japan and Canada, suggested evaluating the WHO’s response to the pandemic “at the earliest appropriate moment.” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he welcomed calls for an impartial independent and comprehensive evaluation.

“It must encompass the entirety of the response by all actors in good faith,” he said in a speech. “So I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review the experience gained and lessons learned and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response.”

The WHO has also faced criticism from the Trump administration, which said it was too deferential to China over its handling of the crisis. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Monday blasted Tedros for failing to invite Taiwan, which Beijing views as a province, as an observer to the meetings.

Pompeo on Taiwan

“The Director-General’s lack of independence deprives the Assembly of Taiwan’s renowned scientific expertise on pandemic disease, and further damages the WHO’s credibility and effectiveness at a time when the world needs it the most,” Pompeo said. China’s “spiteful action to silence Taiwan exposes the emptiness of its claims to want transparency and international cooperation to fight the pandemic, and makes the difference between China and Taiwan ever more stark.”

The WHO has said Tedros has no mandate to offer Taiwan an invitation to the assembly because there is “no clear support” among member states. Some international legal experts dispute that position, saying that inviting Taiwan as an observer wouldn’t supplant the government in Beijing as the sole representative to the United Nations.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on Monday that Taiwan was dropping its campaign to be included in this week’s assembly as the proceedings had been shortened due to the virus, and would resume it later in the year when meetings would be conducted normally.

With no end in sight to the political wrangling, efforts to find treatments and vaccines are heating up. Some companies involved in the development of protective shots have suggested countries that provide funding will get first dibs, even while the WHO pushes a proposal that aims to ensure broad access to treatments and vaccines while offering an appropriate reward to creators.

AstraZeneca Plc Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said the U.K. will take priority for the University of Oxford’s fast-moving effort. French drugmaker Sanofi sparked outrage after CEO Paul Hudson said its vaccine, which received funding from the U.S., will likely be used there initially. Sanofi said later that it would be available to everyone.