Germany’s Leader Seeks Accord With China on Covid Vaccines

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany said in Beijing on Friday that he had been assured that China’s approval process for Covid-19 vaccines made by the German company BioNTech would be sped up. In turn, he said, he would push for Chinese vaccines to be granted regulatory approval by the European Union.

Mr. Scholz, concluding a one-day visit with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, said preparations were also underway for BioNTech’s vaccine to be offered to some expatriates in China, describing this “a first step.”

BioNTech has been trying for more than two years to win permission for the sale in China of its vaccines, developed with mRNA technology. No mRNA vaccines have been approved in China.

Mr. Scholz said that he had urged the Chinese side to speed up approval of the BioNTech vaccine. “I have been strongly advocating that it should now be expedited, because again from our perspective there are no reasons why it should not be approved,” he said. “And I have been assured, at any rate, that acceleration will occur.”

There was no immediate response from the Chinese government. China’s National Health Commission has scheduled a news conference on Saturday afternoon, after a series of rumors that China would ease its Covid-control policies produced this week the sharpest rally in Chinese share prices in seven years.

But the National Health Commission does not have authority over the approval of foreign medicines like the BioNTech vaccines, which go through a complicated web of other agencies.

The state-owned China Aviation Supplies Holding, which purchases aircraft on behalf of China’s state-controlled airlines, announced separately that it had agreed to buy 140 Airbus passenger jets for $17 billion. Beijing has stopped placing orders for Boeing aircraft lately as numerous disputes simmer between the United States and China, most recently including stringent American restrictions on the sale to China of top-end semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing equipment.

In the early days of the pandemic, BioNTech concluded a deal with a private sector Shanghai company, Fosun Pharmaceutical, to manufacture BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine at a Shanghai factory supervised by BioNTech engineers.

But China’s state-owned vaccine giants never endorsed that arrangement, and have continued to distribute the vaccines that they developed. The Shanghai factory never went into production.

China’s own vaccines use inactivated viruses and have proved less effective than mRNA vaccines in studies performed in countries that administered both kinds of vaccines. There have also been recent signs that China’s own vaccines lose even more of their effectiveness than mRNA vaccines against Omicron variants.

And unlike Moderna or the partnership of Pfizer and BioNTech, China has not yet introduced a new vaccine tailored to the Omicron variants, which now predominate.

Mr. Scholz said that authorizing the use of BioNTech vaccines for foreigners “is a good message for expatriates who are living here in China that the option exists to use BioNTech as a vaccine and that they are not further relegated to other vaccines.”

BioNTech declined to comment on the chancellor’s remarks. “We want to make our Covid-19 vaccine available to people in mainland China as soon as it is approved,” the company said in an emailed statement on Friday. “This is part of our global strategy and long-term commitment to China, which is a strategically important market for us.”

China and the European Union have had a series of disagreements over the approval of each others’ vaccines. China did not approve European brands of vaccines while the European Union was unwilling to approve Chinese vaccine brands.

Any move to give precedence to foreigners over the Chinese public in terms of access to imported vaccines could prove politically difficult for the Chinese government. Foreigners were widely resented in China for their special treatment before World War II and particularly before World War I, when European nations and Japan held dozens of colonies and other territorial concessions in coastal China and even as far inland as Wuhan.

“If really the Chinese are excluded from it, that would be a bad signal to Chinese society,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor emeritus of government at Hong Kong Baptist University.

China has already allowed embassies to bring mRNA vaccines into the country to vaccinate their diplomatic staff.

But for the vast majority of expatriates in China, it has not been possible to obtain mRNA vaccines while in China. Some have tried to get vaccinated as soon as they arrive in foreign countries for vacations or work trips, because few residents of China have been exposed to the virus and so arrive overseas with little or no immunity.

Mr. Scholz traveled to China with a delegation of 12 German business leaders, which prompted some criticism in Europe that the trip looked a little like an export promotion exercise. Among them was Ugur Sahin, a founder and head of BioNTech, as well as the heads of Germany’s leading publicly traded companies, including Adidas, the chemical giant BASF and automakers BMW and Volkswagen.

After more than 10 hours in the air, the German delegation touched down in Beijing to a red-carpet welcome with military honors at a largely empty airport. China has halted almost all international travel during the pandemic as part of its stringent “Covid-zero” policies to stop the spread of the coronavirus within its borders.

Mr. Scholz was tested by a German doctor for Covid-19, while the traveling delegation’s members were all tested by Chinese doctors.

From the airport the delegation proceeded to a guesthouse in a park where the economic delegation was briefed by German business leaders based in China. The chancellor went on to meet with Mr. Xi for lunch. No media was allowed at the event.

After also meeting with Premier Li Keqiang, Mr. Scholz told reporters that he had asked Mr. Xi to lean on Moscow to end its war in Ukraine and had pushed back against what he described as rising Chinese protectionism.

“We have noticed efforts at self-sufficiency are increasingly being discussed in China, where economic exchange used to be in the foreground,” Mr. Scholz said. “We had a very open and detailed discussion about all this. I emphasized to my hosts how important it is from our point of view to redress these imbalances.”

Mr. Scholz is the first European Union leader to visit China after Mr. Xi obtained a groundbreaking third five-year term at a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress that ended on Oct. 23.

Mr. Scholz’s visit is important for China, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. Beijing “requires it for China’s difficult economy, for showing the glory of the Congress and the future it guides, and to tell other E.U. powers that they should follow Scholz to be nicer toward China,” Mr. Shi said.

Li You and Joy Dong contributed research.