The UAE and Bahrain were among the first few countries to approve Chinese vaccines for COVID-19, developed by the China National Biotec Group (CNBG), which is part of the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm). Both countries have participated in CNBG’s international phase 3 clinical trials since late June 2020.

Yet, despite being approved, there are doubts around the potency of the Chinese vaccines. Ever since the vaccines entered late-stage testing in clinical trials, there has been little data available on their efficiency. In fact, the results of Chinese Sinovac Biotech’s experimental vaccine “CoronaVac,” for example, reportedly showed that the “level of antibodies produced was lower compared to people who had recovered from the disease.”

The moderate results have thus been below expectations, in comparison to other producers, such as Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine with an efficiency rate of 70 percent; and much less successful than the US’ Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which proved to be 90 percent effective in late-stage trials; and the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, which Russia claims to be 92 percent effective. On December 9, the UAE’s national health authorities cited an 86 percent efficacy rate of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, after human trials conducted in the UAE. However, many scientists observed that the announcement lacked sufficient data and other critical details. The UAE is among ten countries where Sinopharm has been testing its two vaccines.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a high-ranking clinical research professional explained that the efficacy of any drug cannot be determined in such a way. It is up to interim analysis to reveal success rates, which is dependent on the trial format. “Every clinical trial protocol includes an interim analysis plan and description, statistical method, timing as well as who will conduct the interim analysis,” the source told Inside Arabia. “The reason for this is to monitor the safety as well as the efficacy of the drug during the study. This means that no drug can even start a clinical study unless the clinical trial protocol includes this section and commits to share safety and efficacy information as determined by the protocol.”

After joining COVAX – a WHO-backed global initiative for equal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines – in October 2020, China said it would prioritize strengthening international cooperation on vaccine development and promote equal distribution of its vaccines, especially among developing countries, for a reasonable and affordable price. Nevertheless, the source explained that the level of distribution will be determined by production capacity as well as delivery and cold chain capacity in such countries, and the cost of increasing these capabilities may represent a challenge in developing nations.

Various developing states in Asia and Africa had no choice but to rely on China’s supply of its vaccines, but this is not the case for wealthy Arab Gulf states.

Various developing states in Asia and Africa had no choice but to rely on China’s supply of its vaccines, but this is not the case for wealthy Arab Gulf states. As Chinese drug makers face criticism for not publicizing clinical data of their vaccine studies, one may wonder why some Gulf countries decided to conduct trials and make deals with China, given the lack of transparent results and low efficiency rates.

Leading a group of analysts who explore political risk and economic geography with a focus on China, Research Director at Future Risk Tristan Kenderdine believes two possible outcomes of the Arab-Chinese dealings may reveal the Arab states’ reasoning: whether these economies buy the vaccines and whether they deploy the vaccines to their populations. The UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia would surely prefer and demand higher-quality vaccines if they were available. So, he expects this to remain a diplomatic exercise by China and for the vaccines to be purchased but not used.

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Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have already approved the use of the US’ Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and have been in talks with Russia over the purchase of Sputnik V’s. Therefore, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states who have agreed to purchase China’s vaccines in the late-stage of clinical trials are left with diplomatic room to maneuver too, according to Kenderdine. “They can agree to buy these vaccines at this stage, but then buy the more advanced Pfizer vaccine as it becomes available,” he told Inside Arabia. This is a legitimate option for Arab states, to buy vaccines from multiple sellers while there is an uncertain market and then buy larger quantities once the quality of the vaccines in the market has been established.

Mohammadbagher Forough, Research Associate at the Netherland-based Clingendael Institute and Assistant Professor of International Relations at Leiden University, said that China is presenting its vaccine as a “common good.” But in reality, he thinks, there is a lot of geopolitical interest involved in the vaccine diplomacy of China. “A lot of countries that volunteered for the trial-phases of the Chinese vaccines, including some Gulf countries, are those that are strategically important for China, especially in the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] geography, [such as] the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and others,” he told Inside Arabia.

“A lot of countries that volunteered for the trial-phases of the Chinese vaccines, including some Gulf countries, are those that are strategically important for China.”

Kenderdine is also convinced that Chinese motives are purely political, describing the “the fundamental principles” of China’s health science research as techno-nationalistic and representative of a command-economy approach. “Genuine cooperation and competition is never considered a public good in China,” he noted.

Considering China tried to hide the virus from the WHO and conceal the genome sequence from the world, then developed a vaccine without international collaboration, it is difficult to accept that China now genuinely wants to engage in multilateral cooperation, according to Kenderdine. “That the original COVID-19 genome was sequenced and publicly available at all is only due to the strong academic ties between Australia and China, with a University of Sydney academic publicly uploading the data to [share it with] the world,” Kenderdine further stated.

Many observers think that while China is now trying to improve its international reputation, which suffered greatly as a result of the pandemic, Beijing could also use its vaccines for geostrategic purposes by selling the vaccines to its foreign partners from which it expects the most in return.

Jacob Mardell, a researcher of China’s Belt and Road Initiative at Berlin’s Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), told Inside Arabia that strategic interests will factor into China’s vaccine distribution, but commercial and corporate interests of related Chinese companies will also be important. “As with any commercial or aid interaction, Beijing will seek to reward friends and deter unfriendly behavior, but it will not be the sole factor in determining which countries get the vaccine first,” Mardell said.

It has become apparent that GCC countries occupy a special place in China’s geo-economic goals, as they are the most economically developed Arab states which, in Kenderdine’s view, could inspire China to bring them into its new geostrategic orbit. In a similar context, Forough emphasizes the mutual dependence between GCC states and China, which goes beyond the energy sector. According to him, GCC states are hedging their bets on the rise of China. If China expands geopolitically, it’s only natural that GCC countries would want to cooperate with China on numerous levels, including health security and COVID-19 vaccine issues. After all, an important factor in GCC countries opting for the Chinese vaccines is that “these vaccines are more readily available and can more quickly help GCC countries get out of their economic lockdown,” Forough noted.

The success of China’s vaccine diplomacy will mostly depend on media coverage as well as the level of information control China can command.

The success of China’s vaccine diplomacy will mostly depend on media coverage as well as the level of information control China can command. In Kenderdine’s opinion, if China can successfully deploy and defend a narrative of China vaccinating the Middle East, then it can export its “COVID success story” that has been circulated domestically for the past six months.

China’s significant gain would also be wining back its lost prestige. Mardell observes that many countries are currently distrustful of Chinese medical supplies.  If Beijing can prove to have developed a safe and effective vaccine, it may help shift this image. “Beijing wants to move from ‘made in China’ to ‘innovated in China,’ and across the world, more people are associating the China brand with 5G and infrastructure projects rather than fakes and cheap [items],” he added.

While there’s a long way to go for China to transform its image, certainly, a successful vaccine story would help.