China’s government said this week there was “no place for malign competition” on the issue of supplying vaccines. The media it controls in China have, however, adopted a different line, from accusing India of “interference” in preventing Chinese vaccines being used in South Asia, to questioning the efficacy of Indian and Western vaccines.

Also read: India, China may take lead in Asia’s Covid vaccination plans, says Moody’s Analytics

“There are multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates out there on the market, and countries should be able to make their choices on the vaccines independently,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said this week when asked by Chinese State media about reports of India’s “vaccine diplomacy” in the neighbourhood. “This issue can afford no place for malign competition, let alone the so-called ‘rivalry’. We hope and welcome that more doses of safe and effective vaccines will be manufactured at a faster pace by more countries and then provided to more countries to benefit more people,” he said.

“Malign competition” was, however, a theme in some of the reporting this week in Chinese media outlets. On Tuesday, the Communist Party-run Global Times, known for its hawkish views, quoted an “insider” as saying “China-Bangladesh cooperation was also disturbed due to interference from India.”

The Global Times said “in the eyes of India, however, it has become a lever in its tool kit to compete with China.” The newspaper claimed clinical trials were delayed “due to the Indian government allegedly meddling in the two sides’ cooperation during the period”.

That was not, however, the account from the Bangladesh government. In October, Bangladesh said it did not go ahead with using a vaccine from Sinovac, a leading Chinese vaccine-maker, because it was asked to co-fund a domestic trial. Health Ministry Zahid Maleque told Reuters then Bangladesh declined as “that was not in the agreement.” “They never asked for money when they approached us,” he said. ““As per agreement, they’ll bear all expenses of the trial, they’ll give us 110,000 free vaccines and they’ll share the technology so that our pharmaceutical companies can make the vaccine… It has to be a government-to-government deal if we go for co-funding.”

Also read: China’s vaccine diplomacy finds takers in Southeast Asia

China has offered its vaccines to a number of countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Pakistan is the only country in the region to have given the green light for a Chinese vaccine. According to Chinese media reports, more than 20 countries, predominantly in West Asia and Southeast Asia, have begun using Sinovac’s vaccines.

Tian Guangqiang, a scholar at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, blamed India for China’s inability to offer vaccines to countries in South Asia, saying “India has been smearing China’s cooperation with countries in South Asia in cooperation on the anti-epidemic fight as the region is traditionally under India’s influence.”

China’s State media have slammed foreign observers, including those in India, for raising questions about Sinovac’s vaccine, after authorities in Brazil reported a 50.4% efficacy rate, a number questioned by the Chinese media.

State media have, however, been raising questions about the efficacy of India’s home-developed Covaxin and the Covishield vaccine, while offering no evidence, only saying “concerns are natural for anyone who has seen thick clouds of smoke billowing from the site [of Covishield manufacturer Serum Institute of India], 10 fire tenders rushing to the spot, and news stories that the fire had killed five people.”

“Many Twitter users share the same uneasiness over the fire’s influence on SII’s vaccine manufacturing capacity,” the paper said, adding that “scientists ‘scoff’ at the goal of the Indian government agency to test and approve its homegrown COVID-19 vaccine at such a high speed.”

State media has also raised unfounded questions about the Pfizer vaccine, calling for an investigation into reports of deaths of 23 elderly people in Norway which the media in China has widely covered, while not highlighting the fact that a WHO panel said the vaccines did not play a “contributory role”. The Global Times also reported of deaths in India but without offering evidence they were connected to vaccines.

“In comparison,” the newspaper said, “not a single death occurred in China for having received coronavirus vaccines.”

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