By Colin Qian and Stephanie Nebehay
BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) - China has joined a global scheme for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), it said on Friday, giving a major boost to an initiative shunned by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Beijing's latest bid to join the global fight against the coronavirus follows criticism over its handling of the pandemic, which has contributed to a growing unfavourable view of China in advanced nations, a recent survey showed.
"We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more capable countries will also join and support COVAX," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.
The statement did not detail the support Beijing will provide to the COVAX programme, which aims to deliver at least 2 billion doses of vaccine by the end of 2021.
In May, President Xi Jinping pledged $2 billion over the next two years to tackle the pandemic that has killed more than 1 million people.
China, where the virus was first reported late last year, is also in talks with the WHO to have its domestically made vaccines assessed for international use.
As many as 171 nations have joined the programme to back equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for rich and poor countries alike. Participants include about 76 wealthy, self-financing ones, but neither the United States nor Russia.
COVAX is co-led by the GAVI vaccines alliance, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
It is designed to discourage national governments from hoarding COVID-19 vaccines and to focus on first vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country.
But its prospects of success had been dim until recently, as some rich nations, including the United States, chose to sign their own supply deals.
"Vaccine deals are underway and we are fast approaching our initial fundraising target to jumpstart support for lower-income countries," GAVI's chief executive, Dr Seth Berkley, told Reuters in a statement.
"What seemed like an impossible challenge just a few months ago - ensuring every country, rich or poor, gets equitable, rapid access to COVID-19 vaccines - is now becoming a reality."
The move also means China "will be procuring vaccines through the facility for a proportion of their own population, just as with other countries," a GAVI spokesman said.
China has ample capability to make COVID-19 vaccine and will prioritise supplies to developing countries when they are ready, the foreign ministry added.
China has at least four experimental vaccines in final stages of clinical trials.
Two are being developed by state-backed China National Biotec Group (CNBG), and two by Sinovac Biotech <SVA.O> and CanSino Biologics <6185.HK> <688185.SS>.
It has also inoculated hundreds of thousands of essential workers and other high-risk groups, though incomplete clinical trials have provoked safety concerns among experts.
(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps)
(Reporting by Colin Qian, Roxanne Liu and Ryan Woo in Beijing and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Muralikumar Anantharaman)