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International relations

China injects vaccine diplomacy into Latin America

Beijing expands influence amid region's limited drugmaking capabilities

A worker performs a quality check on Sinovac Biotech's experimental coronavirus vaccine.   © Reuters

SAO PAULO -- When Sao Paulo Gov. Joao Doria vowed to make Sinovac Biotech's coronavirus vaccine candidate mandatory across Brazil's most populous state, his bitter adversary President Jair Bolsonaro took to social media to say that such a product must be "scientifically proven" before it is distributed to the public.

"The Brazilian people will not be anyone's guinea pigs," Bolsonaro wrote, noting that the Chinese company's candidate has yet to conclude final clinical trials.

Bolsonaro, who is aligned with Washington, looks to procure a vaccine from British developer AstraZeneca, which is collaborating with U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.

Doria is considered a leading contender to run in Brazil's 2022 presidential election. He recently called on the federal government to swiftly approve Sinovac's vaccine candidate.

China looks to capitalize on the power struggle emerging between Doria and Bolsonaro. Not only does Sinovac seek to export its candidate to Brazil, the company won over Doria with a pledge to transfer technology to facilities in Sao Paulo for the purpose of local contract production. Sinovac says the vaccine is meant for all Brazilians and not just for those in Sao Paulo.

Sao Paulo Gov. Joao Doria, center, met with Sinovac Biotech officials last month in making the case for the Chinese drugmaker's vaccine candidate. (Photo courtesy of state government of Sao Paulo)

Latin America's underdeveloped pharmaceutical industry creates a large hurdle for the region in securing coronavirus vaccines. China's public and private sectors have joined forces to declare support for Latin America, with the underlying goal of having Chinese-made vaccines penetrate the market.

Sinovac and Sinopharm, a fellow Chinese pharmaceutical company, are conducting clinical trials of their vaccine candidates in Peru, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in the region. A test with roughly 6,000 subjects is planned in Peru, where President Martin Vizcarra visited a hospital carrying out final-phase trials in late September.

The Chinese government said in July that it would lend $1 billion to Latin American countries for procuring vaccines. The reliance on China has become especially conspicuous among poor Caribbean nations.

China is already the biggest export destination for many Latin American nations, and the pandemic is poised to amplify that trend. China surpassed Brazil to become Argentina's largest export destination in April.

Brazil sent 34% of its exports to China during the first three quarters of 2020, up sharply from 28% a year earlier.

While China grapples with the U.S. and Europe over the trade war and human rights, the Asian power has drawn closer to Latin America.

China is focusing heavily on the politics of Africa and Latin America, said Mauro Rochilin, a professor at Getulio Vargas Foundation, a private-sector think tank in Brazil. Rochilin sees China deepening its economic role in the future.

Meanwhile, the U.S. presence in Latin America is weakening. Trump, whose policies are rooted in the concept of "America First," has visited the region only once in his four-year term, during 2018's Group of 20 summit in Argentina.

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