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Expert on US-China competition in vaccine diplomacy

Workers unload boxes of Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine, donated by China, at Damascus International Airport on April 24, 2021 in the Syrian capital.

Loua Beshara | AFP | Getty Images

Competition between the United States and China could intensify on another front: Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy.

China has been a major Covid vaccine provider to much of the developing world, an effort that some experts said could strengthen Beijing̵

7;s global influence and deepen its ties with other nations.

But a health and policy expert told CNBC on Thursday that the United States is now catching up as the White House plans to donate millions of Covid vaccine doses abroad, and it appears President Joe Biden intends to do so. more.

“We want to see China face a more formidable competitor,” Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow of global health at the Foreign Relations Council, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

For the past few months, China has been “almost the only primary player” sending Covid vaccines to other countries, said Huang, who is also a professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

This is particularly the case when India stopped vaccine exports to prioritize its domestic needs and Russia’s supply abroad remains very limited, he explained.

Several reports have indicated that the United States is stepping up its efforts to share Covid vaccines globally.

Biden is reportedly set to announce in a speech at the G-7 summit on Thursday that the United States will buy 500 million more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to share with COVAX, a global vaccine sharing initiative.

CNBC also reported on Wednesday that the administration is negotiating with Moderna to secure additional vaccine doses to be delivered to the world.

Publicly available clinical trial data to date show that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots have higher efficacy rates – of over 90% – for the prevention of Covid infections compared to those developed by Chinese companies.

Questions have risen over the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines, with countries including Bahrain and Chile reporting an increase in numbers, even though they vaccinate their populations faster than many countries.

The World Health Organization said earlier this month that studies showed that Chinese drugmaker Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine prevented symptomatic disease in 51% of those vaccinated and prevented severe Covid-19 and hospitalization in 100% of the population studied.

The origins of Covid-19

Relations between the United States and China had made a rocky start during the Biden administration. The two sides have clashed over several issues, including the origin of the coronavirus, which was first discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Biden said last month that he had ordered a closer intelligence test of the pandemic’s origins, including whether the virus had escaped from a Chinese laboratory. In response, China accused the United States of a political “guilt game.”

Huang said the question of the origin of Covid-19 has become so politicized that it is likely to arouse further tensions between the United States and China if further evidence comes to support the possibility that Covid-19 originated from a laboratory incident.

Without China’s cooperation, such “smoking guns” could not exist, Huang said. Still, the theory that the virus came from a laboratory in the West has become a still “credible, if not common, explanation” of the pandemic’s origins, he said.

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