French President Emmanuel Macron has called on China to be more transparent with the science behind its coronavirus vaccines.

It is not clear if Chinese vaccine developers are adopting common standards, because details on their inoculations are less available than those from Western drugmakers, Macron said Thursday during an online panel discussion to mark the opening of The Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

“I have absolutely no information,” Macron said.

“It seems that we can have more information about the Russian vaccines,” he said, citing a study published in the Lancet and Russia’s initiatives to register its Sputnik V inoculation with the European Medicines Agency.

China has been seeking to extend its geopolitical influence through vaccine diplomacy. It added another inoculation to its arsenal this month when late-stage trials in Brazil indicated its Sinovac Biotech Ltd. vaccine offers significant protection against COVID-19. But a lack of timely and clear disclosures by Chinese developers have contributed to wariness regarding their shots.

It’s a “clear diplomatic success,” Macron said, describing China’s efficiency at producing and exporting doses globally as “a little bit humiliating for us.”

With the European Union lagging the U.S. and the U.K. in administering the shots, Macron has been defending the European Union’s approach to jointly buying vaccines to avoid a race between member countries. He’s also been putting pressure on drugmakers to ramp up efforts to produce the life-saving vaccines in France.

Vials of the Sinovac Biotech Ltd. COVID-19 vaccine at a facility in Jakarta. China has been seeking to extend its geopolitical influence through vaccine diplomacy. | BLOOMBERG
Vials of the Sinovac Biotech Ltd. COVID-19 vaccine at a facility in Jakarta. China has been seeking to extend its geopolitical influence through vaccine diplomacy. | BLOOMBERG

‘Systemic rival’

An official in Macron’s office, who asked not to be named in line with protocol, said this week that the French president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were aligned in welcoming any inoculations that meet EU standards, and that geopolitics plays no role. The comment came in answer to a question about whether Macron would consider purchasing the Sputnik V vaccine, which Merkel has said she’s ready to consider using in Germany.

During the discussion Thursday, Macron described a recent agreement between the EU and China on investments as “not honestly a huge deal,” and said it failed to address issues of intellectual property. The accord was seen as the latest sign that Europeans want to diversify alliances after four tense years with Donald Trump in the White House — and one that could make it difficult for the U.S. and the EU to agree on a common strategy in dealing with China.

In downplaying those concerns, Macron highlighted the common history and values that bind Europe and the U.S., which he said isn’t a “systemic rival,” contrary to China.

Macron was the first leader of an EU country to speak with Joe Biden after his inauguration in January. He said he welcomed the president’s pledge to work closely with traditional allies and return to the international forums that Trump abandoned, such as the Paris climate pact and the World Health Organization.

Yet while Macron has been seeking a return to multilateralism, he clearly does not expect a complete transformation of the EU-U.S. relationship. Decisions made in Washington are driven by national interest, Macron said, which might “not be exactly the same as the European one.”

The French leader reiterated his call to reform the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, particularly in light of Turkey’s intervention in Syria, and said NATO forces must preserve interoperability.

Macron is expected to take the lead on the continent and in the trans-Atlantic relationship when Merkel departs after Germany holds elections in September and France takes over the rotating EU presidency in 2022. A raft of challenges includes an aircraft dispute with the U.S. that has led the two sides to hit $11.5 billion of each others’ exports with tariffs.

The French leader praised U.S. tech companies such as Facebook Inc and Twitter for removing terrorist content within one hour when asked by authorities. But he also criticized them for censoring Trump after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, saying “at the very second when they were sure he was out of power, they suddenly cut the mic.”

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