China says to prioritize Philippines for COVID-19 vaccine
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China says to prioritize Philippines for COVID-19 vaccine

President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands prior to their bilateral meetings at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 20, 2016. King Rodriguez, Malacañang Photo/File

MANILA - China has assured the Philippines that it would give Manila priority once it develops a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, a disease that had its origins in a Chinese city and has infected over 16 million worldwide and plunged various nations into recession.

Beijing gave its word after President Rodrigo Duterte told Filipinos in his State of the Nation Address that he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to prioritize the Philippines once China develops a vaccine.

"The Philippines is a friendly close neighbor and we will give priority to its needs once we succeed in developing a vaccine," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a briefing on Tuesday, a transcript of which was made available online.

The rapidly spreading COVID-19 was first reported in China in December last year and has since become a global health and economic crisis.

Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are partnering with pharmaceutical companies to secure COVID-19 vaccines upon successful development.

Wang said the disease outbreak has become a "new highlight" in Manila's diplomatic ties with Beijing even as the pandemic continues to threaten the health and livelihood of millions of Filipinos.

"Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China and the Philippines have been standing together with mutual assistance, turning anti-epidemic cooperation into a new highlight in bilateral relations," the Chinese official said.

Chinese firms are responsible for 2 of the 3 most advanced coronavirus vaccines that had entered Phase 3 trials, or large-scale testing on humans -- the last step before regulatory approval.

The third experimental vaccine on Phase 3 was developed by Oxford University in Britain and pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.

While leaders such as US President Donald Trump have criticized China over the pandemic, Duterte has been supportive of Beijing, even thanking the East Asian nation for its support to the Philippines during the crisis.

This even while Beijing has continued to shun Manila's assertions of a 2016 arbitral award of a United Nations-backed panel invalidating China's expansive claims to the South China Sea, encroaching into the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

In his State of the Nation Address on Monday, Duterte said he was "inutile" in the face of China's military might as it ramped up island-building and fortification in the disputed waters. 

-with a report from Agence France-Presse