2021 is a year for vaccines and the hope of a return to normalcy. China, which was first hit by the coronavirus a year ago, just this week approved its first homegrown vaccine for general use. Officials announced the goal of inoculating 50 million high-priority people before widespread travel surrounding the Lunar New Year holiday in early February. Comparatively, more than 4.8 million people in the United States had received their first vaccine dose under Operation Warp Speed as of January 5, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, millions in China are believed to have already received shots under emergency use provisions prior to regulators giving the green light to Sinopharm. For example, CanSino was authorized to vaccinate the military, including troops on peacekeeping missions traveling to places with high levels of COVID-19 spread.
Chinese health regulators have approved Sinopharm’s vaccine, which is reported to be 79 percent effective. (This rate is lower than the 86 percent efficacy reported from the same vaccine’s human trials conducted in the United Arab Emirates, but the state-owned pharmaceutical company has yet to release more detailed clinical data.) There are currently nine prioritized groups to receive the vaccine, including health sector workers, delivery workers, people whose jobs require overseas travel, public servants, and utilities employees. Authorities in the capital said that more than 73,500 people received their first vaccine dose in the first two days of 2021. State media has reported that Beijing alone has set up more than 200 vaccination sites across the city.
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information announced this week that it can produce 1 billion doses of the vaccine and has the capacity for mass domestic inoculation. Meanwhile, Chinese vaccine makers are boosting their production capacity to not only meet domestic demand but also the large volume of orders from other countries in need of access to the coronavirus vaccine.
While China’s domestic inoculation goals are ambitious, its global vaccine efforts reflect a desire on China’s part to revamp its international standing. In May 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping positioned Chinese vaccine development and deployment plans as a “global public good” in a speech at the opening of the World Health Assembly. “This will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries,” Xi added. Beijing followed up in October by joining COVAX, an international initiative for worldwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, a move that is likely to help the country identify markets for its shots internationally.
As of late 2020, there were 11 vaccine candidates in final stage phase three trials, four of which were Chinese. The Chinese vaccine human trials have been conducted in more than a dozen different countries, including Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. China’s vaccine development was pushed abroad in large part because the country’s aggressive public health measures stemmed the spread of virus and therefore the pharmaceutical companies sought out different conditions for larger scale efficacy testing. For its part, the Pfizer-developed vaccine held its phase three trials at 150 different clinical sites in the United States, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina.
China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac shots also contrast with those of Pfizer and Moderna with respect to the technology used in the vaccine itself. The vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna use an innovative messenger RNA approach, adopting an adenovirus to carry a spike protein. Meanwhile, the Chinese vaccines rely on established means, injecting “killed” or inactive virus into the immune system.
Meanwhile, as China pivots to focus on its vaccine implementation strategy, Beijing authorities appear as though they are thwarting a team of investigators from the World Health Organization tasked with examining the origins of COVID-19. The topic, which has become political fodder, remains sensitive for Chinese leaders, and only a few studies on the virus’ origins have been made public.
Some new information has been released, however, including a study from China’s Center for Disease Control that found that “blood samples from 4.43 percent of Wuhan’s population contained COVID-19 antibodies, indicating that the city’s infection rates were far higher than originally acknowledged.” Despite some recent signs of improving communication flow, vaccine distribution beyond its borders still provides Beijing with a new opportunity to steer the next phase of the coronavirus narrative.
“Although China initially paid a diplomatic price for its failure to control the novel coronavirus, it is poised to repair its damaged reputation by reinventing itself as the public health provider for the developing world,” write Eyck Freymann and Justin Stebbing in Foreign Affairs. This dynamic is likely to be most evident in Southeast Asia. “While there are probably limits to how far Chinese leaders can press their advantage without provoking a backlash, the pandemic has clearly offered Beijing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance itself as a reliable – and inevitable – partner of Asian nations as they seek to recover from the pandemic,” writes The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio.
Experts have also suggested that beyond reputation gains, distribution of anti-coronavirus shots should also reinforce or revive the Belt and Road Initiative across the developing world, not only because of Chinese subsidies and loans for purchases of its vaccines but also by coupling vaccine distribution with the promotion of other development projects.