There was no VIP on board the plane from China that arrived in São Paulo airport earlier this month, but the state governor, João Doria, nonetheless led a high-level welcome delegation gathered on the tarmac.
The masked dignitaries were there to mark the arrival of seven refrigerated containers of vaccines, posing for official photos with tiny vials that Doria hopes will end or at least slow the ravages of Covid-19 in the state he runs.
Brazil is among the countries worst hit by the pandemic, with over six million cases and nearly 170,000 deaths.
China has promised that 6 million doses of CoronaVac, made by the biotech firm Sinovac, will reach Brazil by January. São Paulo’s highly respected Butantan Institute, which is testing the vaccine, will get raw materials to make millions more.
The shipments to Brazil are part of a campaign of vaccine diplomacy that Beijing has mounted around the world. The fallout from the spread of Covid-19 has fuelled mistrust of China internationally, and damaged the global appetite for the exports which helped drive its growth.
A successful vaccine, provided at an affordable price, offers a potential route to address resentment and criticism of China’s early handling of the virus, as well as a financial boost for the country’s biotech firms. China manufactures around a fifth of the world’s vaccines at the moment but those are mostly for domestic use.
“The idea that the Chinese vaccine is going to be a global public good is very important for China right now, because it became the way they are fighting the propaganda war in the pandemic,” said Maurício Santoro, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro who specialises in China-Brazil relations.
“They are trying to deflect blame for what they did in the early days of the pandemic … So if they have a really good vaccine, that would be very important for them. And Brazil is an important testing ground for Chinese ambitions.”
China has five vaccines in final-stage trials around the world, including in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia. With the disease under control at home, there are not enough people getting infected to test them there.
It has also licensed three for emergency use at home; one developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) has been taken by nearly 1 million people, despite the fact that there is little risk of infection inside China’s borders.
President Xi Jinping promised in May to share China’s vaccines with the world, a stark contrast to Donald Trump’s administration, which at the time was focused on buying up large swaths of production of new vaccines to protect its own population.
China has also promised to make sure countries can afford vaccines, in July promising Latin American and Caribbean countries a $1bn (£750m) loan to buy them.
And unlike the US, it has also joined the Covax international vaccine alliance, which aims to accelerate the development and manufacturing of vaccines, and enable the rapid and equitable global distribution of successful candidates.
Chinese officials have been talking of a “health silk road” since spring, when it began sending shipments of masks, other protective gear and even teams of medics to hard-hit countries after riding out its own first wave. The phrase captures the scale of Beijing’s ambition by evoking ancient trans-continental trade routes.
In those early months, China’s efforts to shift public conversation about the virus were often overshadowed by reports of faulty protective gear being shipped from its factories, resentment among governments forced to give effusive public thanks for help, and official Chinese glee at their success containing the virus as other countries slipped deeper into tragedy and economic chaos.
But a successful vaccine could have a much greater impact than shipments of PPE, by allowing countries to start rebuilding their economies and health services.
“Although China initially paid a diplomatic price for its failure to control the novel coronavirus, it is poised to repair its damaged reputation by reinventing itself as the public health provider for the developing world,” the China scholar Eyck Freymann and the medical researcher Justin Stebbing wrote in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs.
“If Washington keeps refusing to compete, it won’t just risk losing the vaccine race. It will allow China to win the prestige of a first-rate technological power, the goodwill of a slew of new potential allies, and a legitimate claim to global leadership.”
85.3% of Brazilians are willing to be vaccinated against Covid-19 – second only to China itself
Adriana Abdenur, Plataforma CIPÓ thinktank
If proved effective, vaccines may also offer China a way to bolster political allies around the world.
In Brazil they have become a focal point for increasingly sharp political rivalry between Doria and the president, Jair Bolsonaro, who recently celebrated the temporary suspension of trials of the Chinese vaccine after a participant’s death, and was notable by his absence from the vaccine welcoming party at the airport.
Like his diplomatic and ideological ally Trump, Bolsonaro has taken a hardline anti-China position, while also attempting to downplay the threat from Covid.
His stance has put him at odds with much of the business community which relies on its ties with China, the country’s biggest trading partner by a long way. Exports to China are worth more than twice exports to the United States, Brazil’s next biggest trade partner, Santoro said.
Into the gulf opened by Bolsonaro’s position on Covid and China has stepped Doria, a centre-right politician with ambitions to challenge for the presidency. Aware of the importance of Chinese ties to the country’s powerful business interests, including mining and agriculture, he has nurtured ties, and recently signalled the weight he places on the relationship by opening a state trade office in Shanghai.
Although polls in Brazil show mistrust of China, which extends to doubts about taking a Chinese vaccine, nothing will be rolled out until the vaccine has passed rigorous tests by Brazil’s own respected regulators.
“It’s reasonable to expect the public will have more misgivings at first, but that acceptance will grow once people become aware that the risks are very small in comparison to the benefits,” said Adriana Abdenur, the executive director of the thinktank Plataforma CIPÓ.
“A recent survey published in Nature magazine shows that 85.3% of Brazilians are willing to be vaccinated against Covid-19 – second only to China itself.”
If Doria can launch a successful vaccination campaign with SinoVac’s candidate in January, both the economy in São Paulo and his own reputation are likely to benefit. That is unlikely to have escaped the notice of Chinese diplomats, who may be resigned to waiting out the Bolsonaro era, but would be happy to see it end as soon as possible.