Officials and global health experts outside China are anxiously watching a COVID-19 surge there, worried a nation of 1.4 billion people is inadequately vaccinated and may not have the healthcare tools to treat a wave of illness expected to kill more than one million people through 2023.
Some U.S. and European officials are struggling to figure out how, or if, they can help mitigate a crisis they fear will hurt the global economy, further constrain corporate supply chains and spawn new coronavirus variants of concern.
“We have made that point that we are prepared to help in any way they might find acceptable,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday.
Advance preparation of the healthcare system, accurate and shared data collection, and open communication are all important to battling mass coronavirus infections, say health experts from countries outside China who struggled through their own COVID waves. Many of those elements appear to be lacking in China, they say.
President Xi Jinping has long insisted that the country’s one party-system is best suited to handle the disease, and that Chinese vaccines are superior to western counterparts, despite some evidence to the contrary.
Democratic governments find themselves in a difficult spot diplomatically, wanting to help stem a burgeoning crisis with global and domestic health and economic implications in a way that the Chinese government might be willing to accept.
“China’s vaccine nationalism is deeply tied to Xi’s pride, and accepting Western assistance would not only embarrass Xi, it would also pierce his oft-propagandized narrative that China’s governance model is superior,” said Craig Singleton, deputy director of the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
European and U.S. officials are conducting careful behind-the scenes talks with Chinese counterparts, while issuing deliberately worded public statements intended to make clear that the ball is in Beijing’s court.
Washington and Beijing officials discussed how to handle COVID earlier this month in talks in China to prepare for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit early next year, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week. He refused to give details, citing “sensitive diplomatic channels.”
One area of potential Western assistance involves whether China would accept BioNTech’s (22UAy.DE) updated mRNA vaccine designed to target currently circulating Omicron-related virus variants, which many experts believe is more effective than China’s shots.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz discussed the issue in a visit to Beijing last month along with BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin.
However, the United States and other Western countries are not openly encouraging China to accept Western-made mRNA vaccines, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters on Thursday. “We stand ready to help any country in the world with vaccines, treatments, anything else that we can be helpful with,” he said.
Beijing has said “institutional advantages” will help it get through the epidemic without foreign assistance, and China’s estimated COVID death toll is still lower than the 1.1 million U.S. deaths and Europe’s 2.1 million.
But U.S. drugmaker Pfizer last week reached an agreement to export its COVID antiviral treatment Paxlovid to China through a local company, saying it was working with all stakeholders to secure adequate supply.
“Whether China asks or not, as a citizen of Beijing, I welcome the attitude of the US government,” Hu Xijin, former editor of party tabloid the Global Times, said on Twitter, adding that he hopes the U.S. government will push Pfizer to lower Paxlovid’s price.