An employee of the state-owned SinoPharm holds an attenuated Covid-19 vaccine that is said to be nearing the end of its final trial. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing insists that its army of researchers are making steady headway towards the year-end rollout of indigenous vaccines against Covid-19.

This comes after overseas skeptics scorned state media vaccine propaganda, as well as a reality check by leading medical pundits such as Zhong Nanshan on the advent of Chinese vaccines and imminent mass inoculation. 

Beijing is seeking to rebut claims that it has fast-tracked due procedures and even cut corners for the four home-made vaccines – one adenovirus vector vaccine and three attenuated vaccines – now in final human trials.

Of the world’s eight candidates nearing the end of human trials, half of them are developed with Chinese talent and ingenuity, according to the Covid-19 development information updated by the World Health Organization.

Chinese officials feel compelled to respond to intensifying doubts, nonetheless, especially after Moscow, having skipped vital safety trials, launched the first vaccine in August. Worst still, China critics in the United States such as Steve Bannon are alleging that Beijing is “habitually” holding back details of vaccine trials. 

Zhong, China’s top pulmonologist, told a vaccine seminar last week that mass vaccination could not happen soon and that people should ditch unrealistic expectations because the coronavirus was among the least-studied pathogens as it emerged only nine months ago.

Chinese state media has thus been told to spread more details about the development and trials of these vaccines. President Xi Jinping recommitted to donating and sharing upcoming vaccines as “global public goods” with the developing world, when addressing last week’s virtual United Nations General Assembly.

Last week, Xinhua reported one human trial being held in the United Arab Emirates, claiming that the first jab that the nation’s Health Minister Abdul Rahman al-Owais got during a high-profile press conference on September 19 was a vaccine candidate developed by the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group (SinoPharm). UAE media did not mention the source of the vaccine. 

A staff member works at a factory built to produce a Covid-19 vaccine at Sinovac, one of 11 Chinese companies approved to carry out clinical trials. Photo: Wang Zhao/AFP

The official news agency also reported that Turkey had become the latest addition to the long list of countries where third-stage human trials of Chinese vaccines were underway. Chinese drugmakers, both state-owned and private, have struck human trial deals to recruit Covid-19 patients and other volunteers across the UAE, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Brazil and Canada, among others.

SinoPharm has also stressed that among the “hundreds of thousands” of participants, who represented a wide spectrum of races, ages and health conditions, in the trials of two vaccines across these nations, “no serious side effects or infections, none whatsoever, are observed.” It said none of the tens of thousands of Chinese participants, mostly diplomats and journalists, had come down with Covid-19 after they got their doses and went abroad. 

Meanwhile, leading Western drugmakers like AstraZeneca have revealed ailments among some volunteers who received jabs. SinoPharm has not responded to emailed inquiries requesting more details about its trials as well as the safety of its vaccines.

Beijing has pledged vaccine donation and adequate supply with deep discounts to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and other countries along the Mekong River as well as to a number of African nations from Morocco to Mauritius. 

The Philippines has also been assured of priority by Beijing after Rodrigo Duterte reputedly agreed to cast aside disputes and backed off from countering Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

China does not have enough Covid-19 patients for statistically significant comparison and data analyses now that the highly contagious pneumonia has been subdued in the country since March. But another rationale for the global trials spanning several continents is to get accreditation from participating countries to convince overseas buyers and users and burnish the reputation of Chinese medicine. 

Of the eight vaccine candidates in third-stage trials worldwide, four are developed in China. Photo: Xinhua

Yet that bid has somehow foundered after Canada, the only Western power that signed up to the Chinese vaccine trial scheme, opted out last month. 

Canada’s National Research Council ended its collaboration with Chinese private drugmaker CanSinoBio in August, citing delays in the Chinese Customs’ approval of the export of related vaccine materials. 

The original deal, under the auspices of both Beijing and Ottawa when it was signed in May, included clinical trials involving close to 700 Canadians as well as production at the council’s facility in Montreal, according to CanSinoBio’s President Yu Xuefeng, who has a doctorate degree in biology from McGill University in Montreal. But the company partnered with the Chinese military to develop a vaccine before choosing Canada for its overseas trial. 

Canada’s Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne has denied reports about souring ties hampering vaccine cooperation with China. It is believed that Canada’s departure will put a big dent on the lure of the Chinese vaccines and people’s trust as Beijing aims to sell them in the West. 

Wang Yizhou, a deputy dean of Peking University’s School of International Relations, is also uncertain about these vaccines despite the state media hype. He said China would offer vaccine aid to countries in need, “but there is still a lot of uncertainty about the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccines.”

Ryan Clarke, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, said Chinese vaccine clinical trials had mostly been run by state-owned enterprises and private firms with links to the military. 

“There have been multiple shortcuts, especially regarding human trials. Beijing may not have much concern for international standards,” he said.

“It’s impossible to reliably determine how many adverse reactions there have been. However, the difficulties encountered by some of the world’s most advanced and experienced vaccine manufacturers demonstrate how complex a virus Covid-19 is and how difficult of a target it is proving to be. 

“I simply don’t believe that China has rapidly leapfrogged the capabilities of these [Western] companies,” said Clarke, who previously held epidemiological intelligence and public health roles at Deutsche Bank, Oxford and Singapore National University Hospital.

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