On 1 March 2021, a message posted on the official Coronavirus Info Telegram channel informed Uzbek citizens that “the first coronavirus vaccine in Uzbekistan ZF-UZ-VAC2001” had been approved. Following messages would contain infographics with images of vials of the “Chinese-Uzbek vaccine” decorated with the Chinese and the Uzbek flags. ZF-UZ-VAC2001 is nothing else than the Uzbek name of the Chinese vaccine produced by the Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical Company and the Chinese Academy of Sciences that was tested in Uzbekistan, among other countries. The vaccine is the second, after the Russian Sputnik V, to be registered in the country without previous validation from the World Health Organisation. The approval of the Zhifei vaccine represents just another proof of Chinese skills in building trust among its partners. The ability to channel Uzbek national interests to locally produce a vaccine that binds the Chinese and Uzbek flags is undoubtedly a Chinese diplomatic success.
Uzbekistan has registered a total of 82,536 Covid-19 cases and 626 related deaths, even if data on excess mortality show that the numbers might be undercounted. The country is reportedly witnessing a new surge of coronavirus cases. The government, an Uzbek source reports, has put in place a series of measures to contain the diffusion of the virus, such as closing schools in three districts of the capital city Tashkent, and advising the cancellation of crowded celebrations of the Nowruz spring festival. Uzbek health authorities are studying the new cases to understand whether the new strains of coronavirus are causing a new wave and will be monitoring the situation until April to take further measures. The vaccination programme is supposed to start on 1 April and the first step of the mass-vaccination will include 4.1 million people. A successful vaccination programme seems to be the only solution to avoid a new lockdown and connected economic slowdown similar to the one witnessed in the first part of 2020.
The approval of the Zhifei vaccine made Uzbekistan the first Central Asian country to approve a Chinese vaccine, soon followed by Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, which received a free batch of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. The Tajik governments is instead relying on the international COVAX initiative to support its vaccination programme, while Kazakhstan is developing its own vaccine and temporarily relying on Sputnik V. Uzbekistan had joined the international COVAX initiative for the distribution of coronavirus vaccines in August 2020 and 660,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine were delivered through COVAX on 17 March 2021 as the first part of the 2,256,000 vaccines assigned to the country.
In parallel, the country had been discussing arrangements for the purchase and local production of Sputnik V since September 2020, but the deal never materialised. Indeed, Eurasianet reported that there might have been problems with the production of the Russian vaccine on a large scale, while Reid Standish from Radio Free Europe put the blame on the local organisation in charge of producing the Sputnik V vaccine.
In this picture, the Chinese vaccine seems to be the preferred alternative with a first batch of 1 million doses already received on 27 March and plans for local production. The Zhifei vaccine is one of five vaccines that received emergency approval by China. All together, they have already been exported to 27 Chinese partner countries all over the world as triumphantly reported by the Chinese agency Xinhua. The vaccine is different from both the mRNA (Moderna/Pfizer) and the deactivated virus (AstraZeneca/Sputnik) types of vaccines, as it is based on a recombinant form of a new coronavirus receptor-binding protein (NCP-RBD) produced in CHO (Chinese hamster ovary) cells. Although both the Chinese and the Uzbek government are defending its quality, the New York Times reports some doubts on the level of immunity it induces in patients.
The Zhifei vaccine was trialled in Uzbekistan starting from December 2020 with 5,000 volunteers aged 18 to 59 undergoing an eight-step medical examination supposed to last for a year. However, volunteers became 9,000 in February 2021, and in March 2021 the vaccine was approved for mass-vaccination in Uzbekistan after not even three months of trials. The decision to test the vaccine in Uzbekistan sparked several critiques in Uzbek social media, to which the government answered by showcasing the vaccination of the Minister of Innovation and his family in what Eurasianet described as a “striking vote of confidence in the vaccine”.
This vote of confidence becomes even clearer when reading the words of the Uzbek Deputy Minister of Innovation and Development that highly praised the Chinese experience with the development of vaccines defining China as “a leader in this direction”. Aliyor Tilavov, official of the Uzbek Embassy to the United Kingdom underlined the importance of the Chinese decision to include Uzbekistan in the development of the vaccine and to share the technology of its production, allowing the country to produce it locally without relying on often expensive foreign purchases.
Although frequently dismissed in the past as the least enthusiastic Central Asian country in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, due to a slower volume of investment and a more reluctant multilateral foreign and security policy, Uzbekistan appears today to be one of China’s most loyal partners. The PRC has invested $3.9 billion in Uzbekistan in the past 3 years and by 2025 the annual volume of investments is planned to reach $5 billion. Much of this effort falls under the umbrella of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and, unsurprisingly, the BRI’s Alliance of International Science Organisations (ANSO) was directly thanked by the Uzbek Minister of Innovation in March 2021 its support in developing the Sino-Uzbek vaccine. The success of Chinese vaccine diplomacy in Uzbekistan is symbolised by the metaphor of the Innovation Minister inoculated with a non-registered Chinese vaccine instead of the Russian Sputnik V or a WHO-sanctioned vaccine, which says that Chinese influence in the country is probably there to stay.
 Author’s interview
 Author’s interview