13 April 2024 | 08:51 AM

Beijing’s soft power: China offers 300 000 vaccine jabs to SANDF soldiers

Key Takeaways

  • At least 300 000 Chinese-made Covid vaccine doses have been offered free of charge to the defence force by China’s People’s Liberation Army.
  • Records of recent meetings show that senior officers are conducting an audit to determine how many vaccines will be required.
  • The donation is part of a soft-power push by Beijing for global influence. Yet the South African military denies any plans to roll out the Chinese vaccines.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which over the past year has made vaccine donations to foreign militaries in 28 countries, has offered 300 000 free doses of the CoronaVac innoculation manufactured by Sinovac to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Minutes of meetings seen by amaBhungane show that in November the South African Military Health Service’s (SAMHS) command council agreed to count how many members of the army still had to be vaccinated in order to determine how many CoronaVac jabs would be required. 

The minutes state that the vaccine would be imported through the national department of health which “will not use it, so the ordered amount must be utilised by the Defence”. 

The department of health and the Numolux Group, Sinovac’s official local partner responsible for distributing CoronaVac in South Africa, both acknowledge the Chinese offer. The health department says it was alerted to the offer “several months ago” and Nomulux says it was only recently drawn into preparations to import a consignment.

But the SANDF denies making plans to use Sinovac’s vaccine and refuses to acknowledge the existence of an offer to donate the vaccine to the army. 

Sinovac’s CoronaVac was given conditional authorisation for emergency use by the South African Health Products Authority (Sahpra) in July but is yet to be included in South Africa’s vaccine rollout programme. The preconditions include the submission of final results of Sinovac’s ongoing clinical studies and periodic safety updates. 

The health department said it was “waiting for a formal request from the SANDF to import the donation of Sinovac for SANDF members.” 

The department said it has “no idea” when the SANDF will make this formal request but Lt-General Peter Maphaha, the surgeon general of the military health services, “is in communication”.

Numolux said the SANDF has not confirmed whether they will be accepting the entire CoronaVac donation made by the PLA or just part of it.  

Defence will utilise it

According to the latest version of the Department of Defence’s annual report, the SANDF has 72 322 members including civilian support staff and part-time reserves. 

Item two in the minutes of the command council meeting in mid-November states that Maphaha asked for clarity on the number of members vaccinated. 

“This is to have an indication of how many of the Sinovac vaccinations will be required to complete the vaccination process in the Defence,” the document reads. 

The document goes on to say that the health department would be the one to bring in the vaccines for SANDF to use, before noting that Sinovac “is not yet approved in South Africa”.

When amaBhungane asked SANDF if it would be accepting the donation and making additional purchases of Sinovac to finalise the vaccination rollout in the military, it denied this.

“The SANDF has no plan to use Sinovac vaccine in order to complete the vaccination rollout for the military community,” said Brigadier General Andries Mahapa, the director of corporate communication.

Mahapa added that CoronaVac was not approved by Sahpra “and was never part of the national vaccine rollout”.

While the Sinovac vaccine is not part of government’s national rollout, Sahpra has authorised the vaccine for emergency use, taking note of a similar decision made by the World Health Organisation. 

Similar conditions were given to other manufacturers such as Johnson and Johnson  during the early stages of South Africa’s vaccine rollout programme which limited access to healthcare workers in the Sisonke Trial. 

“As long as the vaccine is registered and complies with the conditions of their registration it may be imported. But SANDF will need to request that it be imported and provided to their members through [SA Military Health Service],” said the health department.

But Mahapa said members of the military were a part of the national vaccine rollout and would use the vaccines provided by the health department. South Africa’s rollout programme consists of two vaccines, one manufactured by Pfizer, the other by Johnson and Johnson. 

Chinese diplomacy

Analysts have remarked that China’s mask and vaccine diplomacy is a strategic opportunity for Beijing bolster its global influence amidst growing tensions with the United States, by leveraging existing bilateral relationships and building new ones.

10 September 2021: Minister Counsellor of the Chinese Embassy Mr. Shen Long at the launch event for the paediatric clinical trial of the Sinovac vaccine in South Africa (Image: Chinese Embassy website.)

It also has the effect of shifting attention away from the narrative that China was the source of the Covid-19 coronavirus after being blamed for mishandling the initial outbreak.

A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies looking at the People’s Liberation Army’s Covid-19 health outreach contributions said the donations to foreign militaries would serve to “promote and further deepen links between the PLA and recipient military elites in those countries”.

“As military elites form important centres of power in a number of recipient countries, the PLA’s efforts could thus again be regarded as a branch of China’s larger engagement with elites in various countries,” the report states. 

A paper by the South African Institute of International Affairs on China’s vaccine diplomacy on the African continent also notes that China’s mask and vaccine diplomacy “drew some of its strength from the behaviour of other global actors”.

As western countries pushed African countries to the back of the vaccine line, China’s approach was more inclusive, with President Xi Jinping notably mentioning that African countries would be the first to benefit from future Chinese manufactured vaccines. 

Bridge Consulting, an independent Beijing-based consultancy which tracks China’s vaccine exports and donations across the globe, shows that China has delivered a total of 111 million doses, of which 16 million were donations to 46 countries in Africa.

The discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus omicron, has served to increase Covid-19 medical research cooperation between Brics countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. 

In a statement released on Friday the Presidency announced that South Africa had extended an invitation to scientists from Brics member countries to share research and expertise on the Covid-19 virus and its mutations. 

Reports show that a flight carrying a Russian medical team and a mobile lab was dispatched shortly after. 

SANDF and Chinese vaccines 

The Chinese army began the military-to-military vaccine donations in February 2021 as part of Beijing’s broader efforts to proliferate Chinese manufactured vaccines as a global public product. 

Around the same time in South Africa news broke that the SANDF had not registered its members for the Sisonke Trial, a mechanism to make Johnson and Johnson jabs immediately available to public and private healthcare workers while authorities processed the full licensing of the vaccine. 

This meant that medical staff in the military who were eligible for a vaccine through Sisonke were not able to get access to the vaccines launched in February. 

Instead, eNCA reported that in March, minutes of the military health service showed that SANDF had held meetings with the Chinese embassy to try and secure vaccines after the defence force union threatened to take legal action against the surgeon general for failing to ensure that military health workers had access to the Sisonke programme.  

GroundUp reported that in February, the military had already put plans in place to run its own vaccination programme from end-to-end but it was not clear how this would be carried out.

In early March the South African Medical Association (Sama) said  it was aware that the military health service was negotiating with the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinopharm to bring vaccines into the country as a second choice and that they had already applied to the regulators. 

The association’s chairperson Dr Angelique Coetzee noted that companies who are authorised to import products must be holders of the Section 22C Licence to do so.

“We would suggest that SAMHS has a parallel discussion with Dr Anban Pillay from the [department of health] about how this could be arranged as part of the national phased prioritised roll-out as healthcare workers in SAMHS should be accessing the J&J vaccine now through the [Sisonke] trial,” she said. 

Covid excess stock

Anton Arendse, chief operating officer at Numolux, said if the consignment of Sinovac was accepted by South Africa, it would come at no cost to the SANDF or SA government, including any transport and storage costs once it’s in the country.

“[It] is important to reiterate that this is a Govt-to-Govt undertaking,” said Arendse. 

“In giving traction to this initiative, the Chinese Government , via the Chinese Embassy in South Africa requested the Numolux Group and Sinovac to ensure that the necessary is put in place to ensure the smooth delivery of this consignment to the SANDF.”

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Government is currently struggling with an oversupply of vaccines due to low demand from eligible citizens. This has resulted in the department of health asking manufacturers to defer their deliveries in order to avoid stockpiling.

The department said all vaccine delivery deferments had been agreed to with manufacturers. These consist of around 10.4 million doses from Pfizer and 7.4 million doses from Johnson and Johnson.

“By the end of February 2022 we will have received all. We’re trying to stretch it out, especially Pfizer, because of [its] shelf life.” said the department. 

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Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo joined amaBhungane in September 2020 after leaving Moneyweb where she worked as a financial reporter. Tebogo is a Journalism and Media Studies graduate from the University of Witwatersrand where she specialised in radio, which led her to the Eyewitness News newsroom as an intern in 2017.

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