China will allow foreigners to enter the country, but it has directed embassies around the world to only issue a visa if the traveler has gotten a COVID-19 vaccine that was made in China.
“It’s very much at the sharp end of vaccine diplomacy,” Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong, told CNN. “(It’s) essentially saying if you want to visit us, you need to take our vaccine.”
There has been no Chinese-made vaccine approved for human use in America, nor is there likely to be one anytime soon. China has created 5 different vaccines but none have been approved by the WHO. This is probably due to the fact that the Chinese government refuses to release the results of Stage 3 trials — a crucial requirement for vaccine approval in the U.S. and other western countries.
China’s main entry in the vaccine race — Sinovac — has an announced effectiveness of 78 percent against COVID. But Brazil actually conducted a Stage 3 trial and found it only 50.38 percent effective — far less effective than any other vaccine on the market.
Where does that leave the U.S., the UK, and other nations that have not approved a Chinese vaccine for use?
That means China can’t claim its preference for homegrown vaccines is due to them being superior to other vaccines. Instead, Thomas sees China’s new visa rules as a “power move,” which will pressure people to take one of China’s vaccines.
Sarah Chan, a reader in bioethics at the University of Edinburgh’s College of Medicine, says if someone’s livelihood depends on traveling to China for work, that could push them to take the vaccines, despite their lack of data. Scott Rosenstein, director of the global health programme at Eurasia Group, said it could also pressure countries to authorize the Chinese vaccines.
China has been extremely aggressive in its vaccine diplomacy, selling millions of doses of its vaccines to third-world countries. But last week, the Quad — a partnership between the U.S., India, Japan and Australia — decided to manufacture a billion doses of U.S. vaccines by the end of 2022 and distribute them in Asia. The visa move from China is seen as a counter to that plan.
China denies practicing “vaccine nationalism,” despite the fact that it’s exactly what the country is doing.
Despite China’s new visa rules placing an incentive on travelers to take the Chinese vaccines, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rejected the idea of “vaccine nationalism.”
“Regardless of where a vaccine is made, it is a good vaccine so long as it is safe and effective,” he said in a press conference Monday. “China stands ready to advance mutual recognition of vaccination with other countries.”
That raises the question of “immunity passports” and whose vaccine can be used to claim immunity. One option is to leave it in the hands of the WHO, which approves vaccines for emergency use in many countries. So far, the WHO has approved 4 vaccines — none of them Chinese. One can imagine asking an agency in China’s hip pocket to be fair in approving vaccines.
The second idea is even more ludicrous: allowing the 194 member states in the WHO to vote on which vaccines should be included in an immunity passport. It would be a glorious opportunity for China to flex its global muscle using subtle threats like the visa gambit.
The best option would be for individual nations to make their own immunity rules — or not make any at all. Better that than international travel being held hostage by China.
China has declared a vaccine war on the world — whether its vaccines work or not. If people are allowed a choice, my guess would be they’d forgo taking the Chinese shot for almost anyone else’s.