China Sidesteps COVAX Vaccine Donations; Africa Highlights Pandemic Fallout on Health Systems & Societies
Mr Ma Bin, Consultant at the Health Emergency Response Office, China’s National Health Commission, read the statement for China at the session

China told the World Health Assembly on Wednesday it will continue to support developing countries’ access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines – but it stopped short of any commitment to supplying its recently-approved Sinopharm vaccine to the WHO co-sponsored Global COVAX vaccine facility. 

WHO officials had said they hoped China would join the COVAX facility, following WHO’s decision to grant the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine an Emergency Use Listing.  COVAX has been badly strapped for doses to send to over 100 low- and middle-income countries after its major supplier, the Serum Institute of India, announced it would have to redirect all of its vaccines to domestic needs following India’s huge COVID surge.  

But China’s WHA delegate said that the country had honored its commitment to provide vaccines as a global public good by providing bilateral vaccine assistance to more than 80 countries, along with exports to 43 more nations – for a total of 300 million vaccine doses. 

“China believes that promoting equitable distribution of and access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide is crucial to the current pandemic prevention and control,” the delegate said. On the private market, the Sinopharm vaccine is the most expensive in the world – outstripping the cost of the highest-performing mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna.  


The Chinese representative also avoided taking a clear position on the proposed Pandemic Treaty. A draft agreement on taking at least the first steps towards a treaty was reached earlier this week among WHA delegates. The proposal – by 26 entities including the European Union, USA, UK and key countries from each WHO region – appeared to be gathering more momentum from other countries as well. 

However, China supports “the concept of building a One Health Surveillance System as well as a whole-of-government and whole-of-society response approach,” the Chinese delegate, Mr Ma Bin, stated. 

In a wide-ranging discussion at the Assembly’s morning sessions, most countries’s statements also stressed the pandemic’s damage to their societies and economies. 

“The emergence of new variants of the virus has overwhelmed the already overburdened health system,” said Ethiopia’s delegate, saying the pandemic had also resented unprecedented social challenges and put enormous strains on economies. 

Strategies to engage communities and communicate effectively with the public are pillars of the Ehiopian response aimed to reduce disease transmission, she said. The COVAX Initiative has meanwhile supported the vaccination of 1.7 million Ethiopian’s at high risk, she added. 

“However, due to the current global situation, our vaccination campaign is seriously challenged, severely hampering our response and management of the spread of COVID-19. This reality is being experienced by many developing countries,” she said. 

Her comments sidestepped any reference to the pandemic or wider health issues faced by Ethiopians in the country’s war-ravaged Tigray region, where UN officials have warned that famine now looms.  

Hiwot Solomon, Director, Disease Prevention and Control, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health: “The emergence of new variants of the virus has overwhelmed the already overburdened health system.”

Sudan’s representative, meanwhile, said that while the pandemic has shaken all health systems, it has widened health service delivery inequities particularly in Low and/or Middle Income Countries (LMICs).

“While Sudan is committed to playing its role in the global efforts for control and prevention of public health emergencies of international concern, challenges remain,” Sudan’s representative said. “This is observed in the difficulties to regularly evaluate legislation, regulations, and policies to facilitate full implementation as well as capacity for infection prevention and control.”

Sudan called for WHO technical support to establish public health laboratories in difficult spaces and to support LMICs with consumable supplies. Sudan said its particular needs include food safety surveillance systems and a poison control center.

COVID – One Among Many Outbreaks Africa Faces 

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

WHO Regional Office Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti described COVID-19 as just one among a number of outbreaks African countries face. She noted the region has endured humanitarian crises as well as outbreaks of Ebola, measles, yellow fever and other diseases.

Still, she said, African governments “have pushed to sustain hard-won health gains and to minimize the pandemic’s impact, and are taking actions to prevent and treat other diseases.”

The pandemic highlights the need to invest in preparedness and the importance of equity in order to protect the vulnerable, Moeti said. “Much needs to be done immediately and in significant quantities to make the difference.”

‘Last Pandemic’ Report Approved

The WHA morning session also formally accepted the report of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. This panel was created to provide evidence and historical context to ensure that countries and global institutions, specifically the WHO, will be able to address future pandemic threats.

See also: Sweeping Report on COVID Pandemic: Broken Global Emergency Alert System, Hesitant WHO & Patch Country Response 

Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who co-chaired the panel, repeated to the Assembly once more her mantra that actions need to be taken now – so that COVID-19 may be the last pandemic of its kind.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “We identified shortcomings at all stages of the response at both the national and international levels.”

“We identified shortcomings at all stages of the response at both the national and international levels. We also identified successes, and we recognize the hard work and sacrifices made – especially by health workers across the world,” Sirleaf said.

The panel’s goal wasn’t to apportion blame, she said, but to identify the pandemic’s lessons “so that the world can move forward to end the current pandemic and make it the last”.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand, the Independent Panel’s other co-chair, said that fully acting on these findings can address the current pandemic as well as prevent future outbreaks from becoming pandemics.

‘Two-tiered World’ of Vaccinated and Unvaccinated

Helen Clark, co-chair of the WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR), and former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

As virus deaths continue in the thousands daily, she said, vaccines that provide hope also show development of a two-tier world of the vaccinated and unvaccinated. 

“Immediate action therefore is needed on vaccines,” Clark said. The panel has recommended that high income countries share their existing vaccine doses on a much more massive scale – to free up at least 1 billion doses by September for lower-income member states.  

“At the same time, we urge removing the barriers to manufacturing scale-up by sharing intellectual property and transferring knowledge and technology, and by fully funding the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A),” Clark said. 

She was referring to the WHO co-sponsored initiative that includes COVAX as well as funding for medicines rollout and strengthening health systems. It remains US$ 18.5 billion short of funds needed for 2021, according to senior WHO adviser Bruce Aylward, speaking at the WHA Tuesday. 

Said Clark: “The return on investment would be enormous – both for people’s health and for economies.”

Image Credits: Paul Adepoju , Paul Adepoju.

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