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China rolls out experimental COVID-19 vaccine, but doubts remain

A vaccine. (Dreamstime/TNS)
December 15, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China is rolling out a homegrown COVID-19 vaccine, with more than a million people receiving the experimental jab earlier this year, but it remains beyond the reach of many, despite the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s anti-poverty drive.

A vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), has been given to government officials, students, and migrant workers heading overseas, The Guardian newspaper reported in November.

But the vaccines — which retail at anything from 400 to 8,000 yuan — aren’t covered by medical insurance, and are priced beyond the reach of many people on middle-to-low incomes, RFA has learned.

There are also safety concerns given the speed with which an experimental vaccine has been rolled out, and following a string of public health scandals triggered by fake, out-of-dat, and substandard vaccines that have sickened large numbers of people—many of them children—in recent years.

Beijing-based rights campaigner Guo Li said authorities at a residential complex in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou had offered the jab to families living in the apartment block.

“[My friend who lives there] refused, however, because of all the issues there have been with vaccine safety, especially affecting children,” Guo said. “All of the other families there refused it as well.”

“They would rather take their chances and control their own fate.”

Guo said the fact that the government is expecting people to pay for their own immunization hasn’t helped uptake.

Even at its cheapest, the vaccine is being offered at 400 yuan for two doses. In the eastern province of Zhejiang, around one million people have been vaccinated so far, according to the local Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

‘Plan to wait a little longer’

A Guangzhou resident surnamed Zhao said some people have access to free vaccination in the city, but he has no plans to take up the offer.

And a community volunteer in the central city of Wuhan surnamed Chen said the city government is charging 2,700 yuan per vaccination.

Chen said she and many other residents of the city are waiting to see if there are adverse effects before taking the plunge themselves.

“Someone on the inside told me not to try to get one, but to wait,” Chen said. “Even if you want a vaccine, you can’t get one without knowing someone.”

“I have decided to wait a little longer, because the clinical trials haven’t been going for very long; the doctor told me not to try to push for it,” she said, adding that many people she knows would like to be vaccinated, but can’t afford what the government is charging.

Shanghai resident Xie Lijuan said there has been scant coverage in the official Chinese media about the immunization program.

“There hasn’t been much reporting on this,” Xie said. “Maybe it’s because of safety concerns.”

“It’s already available in China, to officials and medical institutions,” she said. “My sister works in a medical institution, and she said that the hospital asked them to sign up for vaccinations, but no one in the hospital wanted to.”

“They don’t know how safe this first batch is going to be,” Xie said.

The Chinese Embassy in Uganda reported in early December that 47 Chinese migrant workers there had tested positive for COVID-19 after being vaccinated. It was unclear which vaccine the workers had been given, however.

Sinopharm has said it has two vaccines undergoing international clinical trials, while Sinovac has three.

While the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain announced earlier this month that they had approved a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Sinopharm, there is little scientific data available to the international community, according to Nature medical journal.

Orders from many countries

Chinese state media say Sinopharm has vaccine orders from more than 100 countries, including many in Africa. Sinopharm’s vaccine is also undergoing phase III testing in Egypt, Jordan, Argentina, and other countries, so they are likely to be among the next to consider approving it, Nature reported on Dec. 14.

The journal quoted Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, as saying that the Chinese vaccines are likely safe, but that the companies will need to boost confidence in the vaccine’s safety and efficacy to sell it in large quantities overseas.

“Chinese state-run companies, like Sinopharm, can produce billions of doses. They have the capacity and expertise,” he says. “They need to have an open and transparent system, but they are not good at doing that,” Nature quoted Jin as saying.

According to Nature, Sinopharm’s vaccine has been widely deployed under emergency-use authorization, with full regulatory approval expected “very soon”

UAE regulators said their approval of Sinopharm’s vaccines was based on company data stating that the efficacy of the two-dose vaccine was 86 percent in final-stage testing, including a trial in 31,000 people in the UAE.

Bahrain officials also reported 86 percent efficacy, after some 7,700 people participated in Sinopharm trials there, Nature said.

Tainted, substandard vaccines

As recently as 2018, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) detained 15 people and sent an investigative task force to the headquarters of vaccine-makers Changchun Changsheng in the northeastern province of Jilin in connection with fraud surrounding tainted or substandard vaccines.

Changchun Changsheng had also previously sold 252,600 doses of ineffective DPT vaccines to inoculate children against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus.

Parents of children given substandard vaccines have previously detailed severe health problems suffered by their children, including bone marrow problems, paralysis, swelling, and lasting damage to internal organs.

In 2016, the government launched a nationwide probe of hundreds of people believed to be involved in an illegal vaccine-selling operation that had peddled out-of-date or improperly stored vaccines, following reports of child and infant deaths and illnesses following immunizations.

Some 350 local officials were blamed for the tainted vaccines scandal that began to emerge in the eastern province of Shandong, but parents of affected children have said the moves don’t go far enough, and that they were targeted by the authorities to prevent them from speaking out or campaigning for compensation.