China will join a global effort to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to poorer countries, Beijing said Friday, making it the most prominent nation to take part in a World Health Organization initiative the U.S. has rebuffed.

Nations around the world are racing to buy up supplies of Covid-19 vaccines even before any have been proved safe and effective in clinical trials. Richer countries have already secured most of the initially available manufacturing capacity by paying for the vaccines to be produced ahead of those trial results.

China’s signing on to the Covax initiative, the main global effort to provide vaccines to poor countries, is seen by experts as an attempt to step into a global-leadership role in the coronavirus pandemic—a role the U.S. has often assumed in past crises.

“This is a great opportunity for China to find its voice and encourage and challenge others with a vision for global health,” said Jerome Kim, director of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.

China’s government will buy 15 million doses of a future vaccine from Covax, its foreign ministry said. Those doses won’t be sent to developing nations; they will go to Chinese citizens, especially those most at risk, according to GAVI, a public-health organization involved.

Governments around the world are debating the timeline for offering Covid-19 vaccines to the public, as drugmakers speed up development. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains the potential health risks linked to fast-tracking vaccines. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/AP

Still, China’s purchase brings in more of the upfront financing that Covax needs to strike deals with vaccine makers, which have seen most of their future supply preordered by wealthy governments. It also represents a diplomatic gesture of support for Covax, which was meant to be the main source of a vaccine for all nations, rich and poor.

“This is very positive news, which gives even more momentum to our efforts,” a GAVI spokeswoman said. It “means we now have the financial backing to make further deals for doses of promising candidates.”

The initiative seeks to distribute vaccines to countries that can’t produce or easily purchase them on their own. The European Union, U.K. and Japan are among the supporters of Covax. Until now, the U.S., China and Russia had all stayed away.

Covax has struggled to compete with deep-pocketed countries to reserve vaccines as they are produced in large quantities next year. The initiative seeks to buy enough vaccines to cover 20% of people in developing countries in 2021, focusing on immunizing health workers and the most vulnerable parts of the population. Richer countries as a whole have already bought more doses than their entire populations combined.

Inside the Covid-19 Vaccine Race

So far the main backers of Covax have been the European Union, U.K., Japan and the private Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. China’s commitments to Covax remain far less than those of the U.K., France or the Gates Foundation.

The U.S. last month ruled out joining Covax. The Trump administration said it wouldn’t be “constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.”

The U.S. said that it would focus on bilateral efforts with international partners and that it would consider supplying vaccines to other countries after Americans are immunized.

An official from China’s National Health Committee said last month that China can reach an annual capacity of 610 million doses by the end of this year and rise to more than one billion doses next year. Four Chinese vaccines are in the final stage of trials on tens of thousands of volunteers in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan. The U.A.E., where one of the trials is near completion, last month became the first foreign country to approve emergency use of a Chinese vaccine.

Although China has a vast population of its own, it might be able to provide vaccines to other countries even before immunizing many of its own citizens because it has managed to almost eliminate the spread of coronavirus at home, experts said.

China has struck bilateral deals to provide vaccines to several countries, drawing criticism it is using vaccines as a diplomatic tool.

Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, said she expected China to continue with bilateral agreements while adding a multilateral approach through Covax.

“The vaccine issue illustrates how the U.S. continues to withdraw from the world, while China expands through both bilateral and multilateral channels,” Ms. Moon said.

About half the Covid-19 vaccines in the most advanced stage of development come from China. None has fully cleared clinical trials, and Beijing has overseen an unorthodox campaign to inject hundreds of thousands of employees of state-owned enterprises, journalists, members of the military and other people with local vaccine candidates before those trials are complete. The government has committed to having a vaccine approved by the end of the year and sharing it with neighboring countries as well as states in Africa.

Still, rolling out a vaccine domestically and to friendly governments has drawn criticism from some as running at odds with the strategy pursued by United Nations agencies like the WHO, which have sought to share vaccines globally on the basis of who needs it the most, such as health-care workers or vulnerably elderly populations.

One Chinese company has already caused alarm in developing countries by saying that its vaccine will cost roughly $70 a dose, well beyond the means of developing countries and more expensive than the price estimates of vaccines being developed elsewhere.

China is joining Covax to “ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to developing countries,” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the country’s Foreign Ministry.

Ms. Hua said China has ample production capacity and would provide its vaccines to developing countries as a priority.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com and Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com

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