Lanka as a hub for Chinese Covid vaccines - Dr. Palitha Kohona | Sunday Observer

Lanka as a hub for Chinese Covid vaccines - Dr. Palitha Kohona

4 July, 2021

Sri Lanka has the potential to become a regional hub for Chinese vaccines and we must proactively take the initiative to have discussions with the vaccine producing companies without delay, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China Dr. Palitha Kohona said adding that vaccines produced in China are currently being used in over 72 countries at present.

Dismissing allegations that Chinese vaccines were sold at a high price to Sri Lanka, the former head of UN treaty section, Dr. Kohona said, “I think, creating confusion when someone is trying to genuinely help us, is the worst type of politicking.”

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: China, which was once the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, has successfully contained the deadly virus. At present it reports as low as 12 new cases per day with zero deaths. What is the lesson Sri Lanka can learn from China?

I think it’s very important to understand the background and context in which China addressed the threat of Covid-19. As soon as the threat was recognised they locked down everyplace where the infection manifested itself. They also started the process of three Ts - Testing, Tracing and Treating. A massive education and awareness raising campaign was undertaken. Public areas were disinfected regularly. The population also cooperated with the Government.

They even built a special hospital in Wuhan in 10 days, to isolate and treat infected persons because at the time it was believed, this would be a major challenge to the Chinese health system.

But it so happened that this hospital was never fully utilised. They successfully used both the Western modern system and the traditional system of medicine to treat the infected. The infection was brought under control very quickly.

The Chinese Government continued to employ the three Ts wherever there was the slightest suspicion of infection. They suspended inter provincial travel and today as a result of these stringent measures, in the southern parts of the country, they occasionally detect small numbers. Most of those cases are imported cases (those who cross the border undetected).

China is today largely Covid free. People travel around freely. They mingle in public places in large numbers as was obvious during the 100th Anniversary Celebrations of the CPC. I joined the celebration at Tiananmen Square on Thursday and there were over 70,000 people at this venue.

China is now confident enough to stage public events of this nature. Everybody is encouraged to wear a mask in public and it is compulsory prior to entering a restaurant. At the entrance your temperature is checked. These precautions are followed when entering railway stations, buses and so on.

China has successfully controlled a disease that has almost brought the West and other countries to their knees, despite the fact it is a huge country with an enormous population. We have many lessons to learn from their success story.

Q: Was it the strict laws or the discipline of the people that was the catalyst behind their success?

It’s a combination. When the Chinese Government decides to enforce rules, it does it without any exception. Everyone, big or small, has to abide by the law. Chinese people are well behaved and disciplined, and they comply with the rules voluntarily and consistently. Self discipline is in their blood.

If I get into a lift without my mask, someone will ask me to wear it. Their sense of social responsibility and consciousness is very high.

You will not find people who will try to sneak out and party on the sly. If that happens, such things will be reported promptly.

Q: Have they opened the country for international travel and economic activity?

No, China still does not allow international travel. Chinese are allowed to travel overseas for approved economic or financial purposes or for official purposes. Prior approval is necessary.

We have heard from reliable sources that it is likely China will soon open its borders. But we must remember that the Chinese economy does not depend on tourism or on foreign students. Domestic tourism is booming. All the local tourist spots are crowded. Public places are crowded. Domestic tourism has recovered substantially.

I read a report that this year China’s economy will grow by 18.2 percent which is phenomenal. Last year the Chinese economy grew by two per cent.

China is not really affected. Chinese exports have also expanded.

Q: Post Covid-19 economic hardships will be a major issue for Sri Lanka and already we have begun to feel the negative impacts of the pandemic. Are we consulting the Chinese to get further help and advice to boost our economy?

I don’t think we need to consult them. We need to look at the best practices of other countries and learn from them. We have very good experts in Sri Lanka who have used their skills and contributed to the international community. We did really well early last year at the onset of the pandemic.

It’s been said that we dropped the ball at some point.

China has already helped Sri Lanka enormously. They have donated 1.1 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine. They have agreed to sell 14 million doses to Sri Lanka amidst a severe global shortage of vaccines.

This is despite the fact that we dragged our feet for months before deciding to turn to China for the vaccine, almost in desperation. China stepped up on to the plate, as a true friend, with a large donation plus an offer to sell us the vaccine.

Pakistan, we understand, will produce Sinovac under licence shortly. This is what I heard from the Pakistan Ambassador in Beijing.

We are not totally incapable of doing this ourselves. The Mission has been encouraging both Sinopharm and Sinovac to start a plant in Sri Lanka. But the green light has to come from Colombo. It can be done but we have to take the initiative, we need to be proactive. Given the serious shortage of vaccines around the world, there is little risk of such a plant becoming redundant any time soon.

Q: Have we already got permission to produce Chinese vaccines in Sri Lanka?

I don’t think so. Sri Lanka needs to make up its mind and take proactive measures.

It’s not a question of us being given permission to produce vaccines locally. We could import the vaccine in bulk and put it in vials here. Covid-19 is going to stay around in the world for a long time. We could export it to the region and not just meet the local demand.

First of all we must initiate a dialogue. The plant could be established either as a fully owned foreign investment or as a joint venture with a local company or the State Pharmaceutical Corporation.

It means that we will have a regular supply of the vaccine without having to import it every two weeks. Next week, after July, five Sinopharm will send in another two million doses of vaccines to Sri Lanka, out of the 14 million doses that they have agreed to supply. Already Sri Lanka has received 3.1 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine and another one million doses arrived at the BIA on early Friday, July 2.

Q: There are claims that Sri Lanka paid a higher price for the Chinese vaccines as against the other countries in the region. Your comments?

I am embarrassed about people who make such claims. Around the world there is no uniform price. Latin American countries had to pay a much higher price. The story about one of our neighbour’s purchasing the vaccines at a cheaper rate, has been debunked by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo. I think, creating confusion of this nature when someone is genuinely trying to help us, is the worst type of politicking. It is really not cricket, I would say.

Q: What is the response from China over the claims that their vaccines are less effective against the new variants of the Covid-19 virus?

I think to have a response to this type of politically motivated allegation, you need a scientific assessment, other than rumours and insinuations and suggestions. There is no statistically based commentary available. If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to take it. And try to get something else. But Sinopharm is the only vaccine available in Sri Lanka at the moment in sufficient quantities, given the current severe shortage of Covid-19 vaccines.

I have also read that it has been delivered to over 100 countries, including Latin American countries such as Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. I have seen on television the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, an East European country, being vaccinated in public with Sihopharm. It’s the main vaccine used in Indonesia. It’s used all over South East Asia and also in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Over a billion Chinese have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The evidence does not suggest that it is any less effective.

Q: Coming back to the question of the pricing controversy, is it due to the costs of shipping that there is an inconsistency in pricing?

Let me put it this way. The friendly countries of China get the vaccines at a cheaper rate. We have received the vaccines at a very low price, compared to other countries.

Q: Sri Lanka is currently facing a forex and a debt crisis. Are we looking at more help from China to overcome these Covid-19 related challenges? Any current discussions to that effect?

Yes, there are. But my suggestion is that we must encourage more exports, so that our foreign exchange earnings can be augmented. China is the most lucrative market place in the world.

But the effort we made to access this market is miniscule. We have an Embassy here in Beijing with only five diplomatic staff members including only three senior experienced officers. It’s like an outpost. We should revamp this post, and get more people out on the ground marketing and advancing the interests of our beautiful country. China has to be taken seriously. It’s very difficult for an Ambassador and four officers to handle all the work. There is a lot more that we can do to market Sri Lankan products and encourage Chinese investors to come to Sri Lanka. We need a bigger mission here and a much more professional approach to China.

For example, countries such as Israel, Pakistan and Australia have large diplomatic representations in China. They are reaping the benefits. Pakistan has received a commitment of US $ 56 billion. Australia’s annual exports to China, despite all the political tensions, exceed AUD 230 billion.

Despite the small team at the Sri Lankan mission, we have succeeded in getting commitments for 14 million doses of Sinopharm vaccines from China and have received 1.1 million doses of Sinopharm as a donation.

We have also secured a very substantial amount of funding, including a two billion Yuan currency swap arrangement to boost our foreign currency reserves and maintain foreign exchange liquidity. In this case there is agreement to allow Sri Lanka to spend the swap funds for purchases from China. However, what is best for us is to increase trade and exports, and not look for aid and loans.

Q: Are the Chinese vaccine producers also researching to improve their vaccines against the new variants, like the more serious Delta variant?

All the Covid-19 vaccine producing companies in the world are conducting research to improve their brands, so I am sure the Chinese companies are also currently on this track. A different company, other than Sinopharm and Sinovac, is trying to develop a single dose vaccine for Covid- 19.

Q: There are claims by the Opposition that China is trying to colonise Sri Lanka and the country is currently in a Chinese debt trap. What is your response?

I don’t think that this allegation is made by any one credible within Sri Lanka or by the Opposition in Sri Lanka. It is coming from overseas. It should be emphasised that less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s external debt is owed to China. The bulk of it is from Western institutional investors. If we are in a debt trap, our trap is somewhere else, not in China.

We borrowed money from China to develop the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port. In all those instances, we first approached the World Bank and the West as well as India. Only when they turned the other way did we seek Chinese assistance and it took us years to convince China to lend us the money. It should be said that the feasibility studies on Hambantota were done by companies in Canada and Denmark, not by China. Both those studies agreed that it would be a wonderful project.