Doubts over Chinese vaccine’s effectiveness fuel anxiety both at home and abroad
The Omicron variant forced governments around the world to tighten border controls, speed up vaccination campaigns and restore social distancing last week. But in Dalian, China, authorities have reclassified the risk of the virus in parts of the northeastern port city from “medium” to “low.”
The contrast, Chinese health officials and experts said, reflected how Beijing’s steadfast zero-Covid policy had proven to be a “magic bullet”, preventing at least 200 million infections and 3 million death. Western pride, they argued, has led to neglect and now the potentially destabilizing epidemic of Omicron.
“Western countries are likely to be seized by Omicron if the variant turns out to be highly contagious, with their unscientific relaxation of epidemic control measures and their over-reliance on vaccines,” reported The Global Times, a service of. nationalist press.
State media blackmail, however, has belied uncertainty in the minds of many in China about the effectiveness and sustainability of immunity from locally produced vaccines as Beijing rolls out recalls and vaccinations for children from the age of three.
Doubt over jabs is not only significant for the world’s most populous country, where 2.5 billion doses have been administered to 1.4 billion people. They also count for the hundreds of millions of people who have received vaccines made by Sinovac and Sinopharm – both of which use an inactivated vaccine rather than the genetic code used by mRNA vaccines such as BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna.
Ben Cowling, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said there was “still much more uncertainty about the effectiveness of inactivated vaccines compared to some of the other widely used vaccines, such as the two mRNA vaccines and the AstraZeneca vaccine â.
The recent Delta epidemic in China – which has spread to more than half of the country’s provinces and caused local lockdowns – has indicated that the effectiveness of Chinese-made vaccines “against infection and transmission cannot not be as high as very strict public health measures were still needed to control these outbreaks, âCowling said.
But the outbreak also suggested that “the effectiveness of the severe Covid vaccine appears to be high because recent outbreaks have included very few severe cases.”
The Omicron variant, which has quickly spread to London, New York and Seoul, presents vaccines with a new test.
According to the first detailed study by South African epidemiologists, Omicron has been linked to a substantial increase in coronavirus re-infections compared to previous waves.
In many poor countries, Chinese vaccines were key to saving lives at the start of the pandemic after a Covax vaccine initiative under Gavi, a UN-backed alliance, struggled to reach its targets. distribution targets. Despite the pace and scale of the rollout, vaccine uncertainty persisted in China and abroad.
This was partly caused by the Chinese government. Since the coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan almost two years ago, Beijing censors have quashed any sign of dissent or questioning of the state’s response.
The lack of transparency on the effectiveness and decreasing durability of the jab has worried many Chinese people, especially parents of young children and the elderly. According to interviews and private social media focus groups seen by the Financial Times in recent months, parents have quietly sought to resist giving consent for their children’s photos.
Latin America and the Caribbean, home to just 8% of the world’s population, has suffered nearly a third of all Covid-related deaths. While China has shipped almost twice as many vaccines as the United States – most of which was distributed through Covax – countries are increasingly looking to other manufacturers.
Last year, the Brazilian state of SÃ£o Paulo forged a partnership with Sinovac, just as President Jair Bolsonaro was facing criticism for his government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. The vaccine developed in China accounted for most of the injections at the start of the inoculation campaign in Latin America’s most populous country, but was overtaken by the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine.
SÃ£o Paulo officials initially claimed that CoronaVac, the vaccine produced by Sinovac, had shown 78% effectiveness against mild to severe cases in local trials. But following criticism of the lack of transparency of the data, scientists announced that the overall rate was only 50.4% days later – just above the threshold required for regulatory approval – once “very light” cases included.
Researchers at the state’s Butantan Institute, which fills and completes CoronaVac vaccines in Brazil, have since said that with a space of 21 days or more between the two doses, it could reach 62.3%. But doubts have been expressed about the duration of the immunity.
Butantan supplied more than 100 million doses of CoronaVac, the majority of which were manufactured in its own facilities. However, there are no other contracts for the domestic supply or any negotiations with the federal government, a spokesperson said.
In Singapore last week, the health ministry said people who received two doses of the Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccine would need a third dose from next month to be considered “fully immunized”.
While Chinese vaccines appear to be falling out of favor, the speed of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy will not be so easily reversed.
“They [the Chinese] took advantage of a tactical window and insisted on other geostrategic priorities – [the acceptance of] Huawei [network technology], recognition of Taiwan, âsaid Daniel Runde of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an American think tank.
Many health experts have also warned that the policy is hampering cooperation and scientific discussions in response to the pandemic, especially between the West and China.
Jerome Kim, immunology expert and director general of the UN’s International Vaccine Institute who has worked with Chinese and Western vaccine developers, warns that vaccines are not a solution in themselves.
âAround the world, we have seen the effectiveness of vaccination, but infections, illnesses and deaths from Covid-19 remain,â he said.
“Have we forgotten that vaccines are generally the most effective as part of a systematic approach to prevention, an approach that for Covid-19 always includes masks, distancing, crowd avoidance, isolation, the booster tests and injections? “
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing and Mercedes Ruehl in Singapore