WASHINGTON, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Officials and global health experts outside China are watching with concern a COVID-19 surge there, concerned that a nation of 1.4 billion people is under-vaccinated and may not have the health tools to cope treat an expected wave of disease killing more than a million people by 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 worrying strains of coronavirus.
“We have indicated that we stand ready to assist them in any way they deem acceptable,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday.
Early health-system preparation, accurate and shared data collection, and open communication are all important to combating mass coronavirus infections, say health experts from countries outside China, who have been battling through their own COVID waves. Many of these elements appear to be missing in China, they say.
President Xi Jinping has long insisted that the country’s one-party system is best suited to deal with the disease and that Chinese vaccines are superior to Western counterparts, despite some evidence to the contrary.
Democratic governments are in a tight spot diplomatically as they seek to help contain a burgeoning crisis with global and national health and economic repercussions in ways the Chinese government may be willing to accept.
“China’s vaccine nationalism is deeply entwined with Xi’s pride, and accepting Western aid would not only embarrass Xi but also pierce his often-propagated narrative that China’s governance model is superior,” said Craig Singleton, deputy director of the China program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
European and US officials are holding careful behind-the-scenes discussions with Chinese counterparts while making deliberately worded public statements intended to make it clear that the ball is in Beijing’s court.
Officials from Washington and Beijing discussed how to deal with COVID in talks in China earlier this month in preparation for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit early next year, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last week. He did not want to give details, referring to “sensitive diplomatic channels”.
One area of potential Western support concerns whether China would accept BioNTech’s (22UAy.DE) updated mRNA vaccine, which was designed to target currently circulating Omicron-related virus variants, which many experts believe are more effective than China’s vaccinations.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz discussed the topic during a visit to Beijing last month together with BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin.
However, the United States and other Western countries are not openly encouraging China to accept Western-made mRNA vaccines, said White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters on Thursday. “We stand ready to help every country in the world with vaccines, treatments and anything else that we can be of help with,” he said.
Beijing has said “institutional advantages” will help it weather the epidemic without foreign aid, and China’s estimated COVID death toll is still lower than the 1.1 million deaths in the US and the 2.1 million in Europe.
However, US drugmaker Pfizer (PFE.N) reached an agreement last week to export its COVID antiviral treatment Paxlovid to China via a local company, saying it is working with all parties involved to ensure adequate supplies.
“Whether China asks for it or not, as a citizen of Beijing, I applaud the US government’s stance,” Hu Xijin, former editor of party tabloid Global Times, said on Twitter, adding he hopes the US government will support Pfizer will push lower Paxlovid price.
The rivalry between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, has intensified in recent months, with the Biden government seeking to bring China’s semiconductor sector to its knees and politically oust Beijing in Asia and Africa.
President Joe Biden has described the state of world politics as a turning point between democracy and autocracies.
But the two countries remain deeply intertwined, with China being the largest US trading partner and top customer for many American companies.
“We want China to do COVID right,” Blinken said earlier this month. “It is primarily in the interests of the Chinese people, but it is also in the interests of people around the world.”
China-exposed luxury companies like France-based LVMH (LVMH.PA) and industrial indices recently traded lower on COVID concerns, and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell signaled his concern last week.
“China faces a very challenging system as it reopens,” Powell said, adding that its manufacturing, export and supply chain remain critical. “It’s a risky situation.”
Health experts outside of China fear it may be too late to avert a tragedy.
“What do you do for a Category 5 hurricane when it’s an hour and a half offshore? If you haven’t already, it’s too late,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“This pandemic will just break through (China) in the next few weeks,” he said. “It’s unfortunate they didn’t think about it six or ten months ago. They could have bought time to be in a better position.”
More than 160 million people in China are thought to have diabetes, and there are eight million unvaccinated Chinese over 80, said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. These are risk factors for severe COVID.
South Korea, which has one of the lowest COVID death rates of any major country, has managed the pandemic by vaccinating as many people as possible, propping up hospitals before reopening and communicating with the public about the disease, said Dr. Jerome Kim, Director General of the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute.
Officials set up health centers and apps that told people with symptoms how to avoid infecting others, he said.
“Is that set up in China now? We do not know it.”
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Additional reporting by Marisa Taylor, Hyunsu Yim, Jeff Mason and Michael Martina; writing by Heather Timmons; Edited by Bill Berkrot
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