ISLAMABAD—China will supply coronavirus vaccines to Pakistan as part of an agreement for trials of the vaccine to be conducted in the South Asian nation, according to Pakistani government officials.
Pakistan, one of China’s closest allies in the developing world, will receive enough doses early in distribution to vaccinate the most vulnerable among its population of 220 million, including the elderly, health-care workers and people with medical conditions associated with serious cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
About one-fifth of the country’s population could be covered by the allocation, the officials said.
The agreement, among the first China has reached as part of its efforts to test its coronavirus vaccine in populations beyond its borders, comes amid a global competition for access to vaccines that are now entering trials and expected to come to market in coming months.
Negotiations are under way with a second Chinese company to trial its vaccine in Pakistan, officials said.
The developing world—which often lacks both a pharmaceutical industry to develop, test and produce vaccines and the money to purchase them from elsewhere—has been forced to seek supplies from allies or from international groups attempting to obtain vaccines for poor countries.
China hasn’t been a major vaccine producer globally. It needs to test its Covid-19 vaccines outside its borders, because coronavirus cases in China have dwindled and it is harder to find the population diversity required.
Beijing also is leveraging its coronavirus vaccines to build global influence, especially in the developing world. “Covid-19 could be a turning point for China, as we are seeing a vacuum in global leadership,” said Jennifer Bouey, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. “China could build solidarity with developing countries and become a more influential player in global health.”
The U.S. has spent at least $9 billion to buy up vaccine supplies in advance from non-Chinese companies to cover its entire population.
Neither the U.S. nor China have joined the global initiative backed by the World Health Organization that aims to raise $18 billion to purchase and distribute the vaccine equitably.
State-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group, also known as Sinopharm, has tied up with Karachi University’s International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences for the trials.
“Pakistan would get the vaccine on a priority basis,” an official involved in forging the agreement said.
Sinopharm didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Pakistan would conduct Phase 1 trials of the vaccine and then move rapidly to the final-stage Phase 3 trial, which requires tens of thousands of volunteers. If the vaccine is safe and effective, Pakistan would receive enough vaccine to cover around a fifth of its population in the initial months of production, according to Pakistani officials.
Financial terms haven’t yet been worked out, the officials said.
Given intense global demand for the vaccine, the best that many countries can hope for before 2022 is to source enough vaccine for its most vulnerable people.
Pakistan, one of China’s closest partners in the developing world, has been a showcase for Beijing’s global infrastructure-building program, the Belt and Road initiative, in recent years. The initiative has been another way China has sought to increase its overseas clout.
Pakistani officials say that in addition to any vaccine from China, they are open to sourcing immunizations from elsewhere if they are affordable.
China has three indigenous coronavirus vaccines being developed in final Phase 3 trials. They all use the traditional inactive virus technology. Chinese companies are also conducting final trials elsewhere, including in the UAE and Brazil.
Some Western vaccines are also in final trials, including vaccines being developed by Oxford University and U.S. company Moderna.
Some countries including Brazil have a local vaccine-manufacturing capability, meaning they have worked out an agreement with a Chinese company to produce the vaccine locally after trials there. But countries without that capability, such as Pakistan, are particularly vulnerable.
While Pakistan’s coronavirus figures have declined, officials say there are hot spots where the vaccine could be tested. They fear a second wave could arrive in coming months, as economic activity increases and restrictions on movement are lifted.
—Chao Deng in Taipei contributed to this article.
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