This project is follows a landmark moment in China’s attempts to establish itself as a pharmaceutical powerhouse and a global health player. The work used a wide range of sources to tell the story of the economics, politics and diplomacy behind Beijing’s push to become the world’s biggest exporter of COVID-19 vaccines. It is the first in a data-driven series exploring China’s vaccine strategy, capabilities and role in the global medicines supply chain. But the effort has also attracted skepticism and questions, and observers wonder how China’s initiative fits into preparations for the next pandemic.
We wanted to explore how and why Chinese vaccines have been exported all over the world despite most western countries eschewing their use. We tried to tell a nuanced story, highlighting how Chinese jabs have become a crucial tool in fighting the pandemic. But we also covered criticisms in areas including efficacy, transparency and the political demands made by Beijing of some recipient countries. Whatever the balance sheet of China’s role, the pandemic shows Beijing has become an important presence in global public health in a way it was not before. We received comments, especially from people in the developing countries where the vaccines were in high demand. Readers from India, another big pharmaceutical country, were also interested in the follow-up piece.
We mainly used Python to scrape, refine and visualize the data used in this piece and a follow-up published in December on China’s push to become the world’s number one pharmaceuticals maker (https://asia.nikkei.com/static/vdata/infographics/chinavaccine-2/). We visualized all of the charts with a package called Altair so that we could easily edit them in Adobe Illustrator. For the mapping, we geocoded and visualized with Google Data Studio and Geopandas. For some national data, such as that of China, Mexico, and Indonesia, we scraped press releases in local languages. We could easily find documents released by the Chinese government, as one of the team members could read Chinese. For Mexico and Indonesia, we mostly relied on translation and colleagues who speak the relevant languages. For the research process, we used Selenium to scrape several Chinese official web pages, including those of the national drug regulator. We had to use a Chinese VPN to see some websites.
What was the hardest part of this project?
One of the most challenging parts of the work was telling the story of the spread of China’s vaccines from various angles. We collected data on every aspect of Chinese jabs, such as distributed doses, product pipelines, and manufacturing plans. The flow of vaccine delivery was complicated, so we had to spend time calculating how many vaccines each country received.
The other challenge was China’s lack of information disclosure. It was very difficult to access people and data in the country – especially from our base in Japan. It was also difficult to achieve the global coverage we wanted. We had to gather data and observations across continents for the comprehensive sweep required by the project.
What can others learn from this project?
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a tidal wave of disinformation and propaganda. This is true of both China’s self-promotion and some of the criticism levelled at its vaccines. The main lesson of the project is that it is important to dig into details to try to tell a sophisticated story. Chinese vaccines have been very helpful in combating the pandemic, particularly for poorer countries with little or no access to western-made vaccines. In this sense, Beijing and the Chinese pharmaceutical companies played a crucial role in saving lives. But at the same time, Chinese jabs are neither the best nor the cheapest available. Part of the reason they struggle to gain acceptance in some places is a lack of published trial data. And some of the vaccine shipments China has made around the world have come with a political price for recipient nations.