A vaccine developed by state-owned drugmaker SinoPharm is on display. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese public health officials and experts are split over whether the entire population should get at least one jab in the winter if local vaccines become available before a possible next resurgence of Covid-19. 

In a turn, Beijing now appears to be trying to manage expectations about its under-trial vaccines. Many Chinese, owing to a steady diet of state propaganda about how safe and effective these vaccines will be, believe they will soon be inoculated.

Gao Fu, the chief of China’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has sought to downplay the hype at a vaccine development symposium this week. 

“Most ordinary people do not need these vaccines now that our nation has done such a commendable job to continuously suppress the virus for so many months,” Gao told media eager for news about China’s vaccine research and development. 

He told the China News Service that mass vaccination would be “unnecessary,” as long as citizens keep wearing masks and maintain a safe distance from others in public venues.   

A medical worker wearing full protective gear takes a swab sample from a journalist to be tested for Covid-19 during the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, May 24, 2020. Photo: AFP

The senior health official earlier stirred commotion due to the national CDC’s perceived as sluggish response when the virus started in December to ravage the central city of Wuhan, the global pandemic’s origin. 

However, the latest statistics from the National Health Commission, if they are to be believed, corroborate Gao’s judgment.

Other than dozens of imported cases clustering in major aviation gateways and border checkpoints, most provinces and municipalities maintain that they have clean slates of local health with no communally spread infections.

Hubei province, including the provincial capital of Wuhan, is on a 41-day run of no new cases. China, with a population of 1.4 billion, now reportedly has only 395 patients still being treated. 

Gao said it would be a tight balancing act between risk management and cost-effectiveness when it comes to mass vaccination.

“My advice to the top leadership is that, unless Wuhan relapses into another epidemic or other cities are hit by flare-ups of similar magnitude, mass vaccination would cost us dearly without bringing too many additional benefits now that we have already squashed any spikes or fresh waves.”

Gao said there must be a triage mechanism to vaccinate medical and essential workers first. He admitted that he had already received an unspecified injection, saying it was part of a third-stage human trial. 

Currently, there are four domestic vaccines about to hit the market, including one being developed by the People’s Liberation Army reportedly based on an attenuated common influenza virus.  

Gao said also that the government’s tendency to negotiate deep discounts from producers for mass procurement may affect the profitability of drugmakers and thus discourage innovation.  

Gao’s remarks soon ignited controversy, however. 

Some observers who are already skeptical about the progress of Chinese vaccines, including Taiwan’s former health minister Lin Tzou-yien, have said Beijing may have spread its propaganda too far and now must tell its people they would not need vaccines because their availability may not meet popular expectations. 

“Beijing may have realized that it can neither ensure absolute safety and effectiveness of its vaccines or ratchet up production in short order, so now it has to ask people like Gao to manage people’s expectations,” said Lin.

There are four Chinese vaccines in final-stage human trials but a China National CDC official said one more vaccine is being developed. Photo: Handout

There are also conflicting reports from state media about production capacity and mass vaccination, if one is being planned. 

A colleague of Gao at the National CDC told the state broadcaster China Central Television on Tuesday (September 15) that ordinary Chinese people can expect to get their shots as early as November.

Wu Guizhen, China National CDC’s chief biosafety expert, told the CCTV’s Bai Yansong it would be “very soon” for ordinary citizens to get vaccines and “no side effects, none whatsoever, are observed among the volunteers, myself included, who received their first dose in April.”

Wu also told Bai that five Chinese vaccines were being developed. 

In August, Communist Party mouthpiece the Guangming Daily quoted Liu Jingzhen, the president of China National Pharmaceutical Crop (SinoPharm), as saying that the company, the largest state-owned drugmaker, could only turn out 200-300 million doses a year. 

That output will fall short of domestic demand, not to mention Beijing’s pledges to donate vaccines to several Southeast Asian and African nations.

Yet in August Xinhua said in a feature story that the nation’s annual output would hit a billion doses.

Liu also revealed that SinoPharm had already invested 2 billion yuan (US$296 million) for two biosafety-3 production facilities in Beijing and Wuhan. 

So far Beijing has not made any formal pledge to its own people about mass vaccination. 

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s government has unveiled a scheme to procure doses for twice the entire city’s population. The territory has reportedly budgeted more than HK$8.4 billion ($1 billion) for no less than 16.5 million doses from a wide swath of suppliers across mainland China and the West. 

In documents submitted to the city’s legislature, the government said it had been in talks with drugmakers worldwide to place orders for at least two vaccines nearing the end of their final trials. 

About three million Hongkongers, mostly medical workers and elderly people, will be vaccinated when initial batches are shipped to the city, expected by the end of the year.    

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