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COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in Africa Presents China With a Golden Geopolitical Opportunity

The same week that 100,000 doses of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Africa for the first time, news emerged from the World Health Organization that its Covax vaccine alliance is in trouble.

Reuters reported that a lack of funds, supply risks, and complex contractual arrangements are all endangering Covax’s plan to provide vaccines to up to 20% of a country’s population, prompting growing concern that people in poor and middle-income countries will have to wait for two, three, possibly four years longer than residents in wealthier countries.

“The risk of a failure to establish a successful COVAX Facility is very high,” said an internal report to the board of Gavi, an alliance of governments, drug companies, charities, and international organizations that arranges global vaccination campaigns. Gavi co-leads COVAX alongside the WHO.

This is almost an identical situation as to what happened back in February and March at the outset of the pandemic when African countries were priced out of the market for C19 personal protective equipment (PPE). Back then, countries, even U.S. states, were all forced to outbid one another to buy masks and other protective materials that left poor countries, especially in Africa, largely on the sidelines. 

That is until the Jack Ma Foundation arrived in March with planeloads of PPE that was distributed evenly to every African country. Since then, Chinese embassies, companies, business associations, the PLA, provinces, and cities back in China have all continued to provide a steady supply of PPE, generating significant amounts of goodwill (read soft power) along the way.

Now, the Chinese appear poised to repeat that effort with the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in Africa and other parts of the developing world that look increasingly like they’ll be left behind due to hoarding by rich countries. In Africa, the Chinese have already set up a manufacturing operation in Egypt, a cold chain air bridge linking Shenzen with Addis Ababa, and will likely work through the WHO for the proverbial “last mile” delivery.

While other countries like Russia, Vietnam, and India are all producing what are expected to be low-cost C19 vaccines, it’ll be difficult for those suppliers to pull off the kind of logistics operation that is required to get the vaccines into the market. The Chinese, in contrast, have turned to e-commerce giant Alibaba and its powerful logistics division Cainiao for help.

With Covax potentially sidelined and no meaningful competition from the U.S. or Europe, C19 vaccine distribution in Africa presents China with the kind of golden geopolitical opportunity that really doesn’t come along very often.

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