A Chinese team, led by PLA senior bioengineer Major General Chen Wei, has worked almost around the clock since late January to develop a vaccine candidate, which is now in third-stage human trial. Photo: China News Service

In March, about 180 immunologists and epidemiologists with China National Pharmaceutical Industry Corp (SinoPharm), together with their families, signed up to be the first volunteers to receive jabs as the state-owned drugmaker scrambled to develop a Covid-19 vaccine but needed to ascertain its safety and efficacy. 

Half a year later, as Beijing commits to donating vaccines and sharing formulas and ingredients as “global public goods” with the developing world, those volunteers are reportedly maintaining “significantly high levels” of antibodies against Covid-19. 

These developments are encouraging according to Dr. Zhang Wenhong, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital jointly managed by SinoPharm and the prestigious Fudan University.

“They kept on taking blood for antibody testing almost on a daily basis since then and found no major changes in their immunity acquired through the vaccination,” said Zhang, who sits on an elite expert panel advising the Beijing leadership and oversees the Shanghai government’s exemplary efforts to keep the city’s caseload low. 

SinoPharm confirmed the “promising progress” on Sunday, saying that all volunteers aged between 18 and 59 developed antibodies within 28 days of receiving two doses. 

The company added that no major side effects had been observed during the ongoing third-stage trial, though up to 21% of the participants in some groups experienced mild discomfort like fever and pain around the injection site.  

Researchers are involved in what is becoming a nationalistic race to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Image: Facebook

Zhang also said more than 90% of the cured Covid-19 patients discharged from his hospital had continued to display high levels of antibodies in their serum for at least three months.

He said his statistics corroborated the findings of a recent serum profiling project in Iceland, where 91.1% of the 1,797 patients surveyed still had enough antibodies or were seropositive, to stay impervious to the respiratory disease for at least four months. 

The paper of the Icelandic research was published by the New England Journal of Medicine this month. The conclusion is that the Covid-19 pathogen is akin to better-known and better-studied coronaviruses and can be neutralized as long as a full immune response is triggered in time. 

Zhang said he was optimistic that the imminent Chinese vaccines, as well as a few others worldwide that were also in their final trials, would be able to protect people for four months to a year, even though antibody levels may eventually drop and that yearly vaccinations should be mandatory when production could be ramped up. 

He said international travel may resume and countries could reopen their borders and economies, as long as the global mortality rate dropped to 1%. 

Dr. Zhang Wenhong, chief of infectious disease at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital, is a well-known expert across China who advises Beijing on its response to Covid-19. Photo: Xinhua

But a colleague of Zhang, who is also with Shanghai’s Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Asia Times that he and some other experts at the center had become “anti-vaxxers” due to the opaque nature of the research and trials of China’s vaccines.

“When Oxford and AstraZeneca made public their setback in human trials after at least one patient developed unexplained neurological symptoms that turned out to be undiagnosed multiple sclerosis, all we hear from Chinese state media is propaganda about how quickly we can get not just one, but several vaccines, with almost no information about how safe they are and the side effects found during human trials,” said the anonymous virologist, who was not authorized to speak to foreign media.  

“Russia reportedly skipped third-stage human trials before announcing the launch of its vaccine in August and judging from the information I gleaned from vaccine researchers in China, Beijing has also been tacitly pressuring them to fast-track trials.” 

Earlier this month, leading vaccine candidate Ad5-nCoV, jointly developed by the People’s Liberation Army’s Military Sciences Academy and private firm CanSinoBIO, was also met with incredulity over its effectiveness. 

Some medical professionals, including those with the British Medical Council and Oxford’s Medical Sciences Division, questioned if the vaccine could work, as it contained a weak form of a common influenza virus to which the majority of the global population has been exposed, and thus, people may have inadequate immunity against Covid-19 even after getting their jabs.

In reply, CanSinoBIO’s Chief Scientist Zhu Tao insisted that there had been no evidence or clinical data from the second-stage trial involving 128 participants that existing antibodies against common flu viruses would affect the potency of the Ad5-nCoV vaccine, adding that Oxford and AstraZeneca had adopted a similar approach to their development. 

Major General Chen Wei, the PLA virologist leading the research and trials of Ad5-nCoV, was feted by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a national commendation ceremony on September 8 when the leader announced China’s “resounding victory” over the virus. 

Currently, four out of the eight vaccines nearing the end of their final stage trials are from China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the Covid-19 epicenter Wuhan, Hubei province, on March 10. Photo: Xinhua

Another sign of the upcoming advent of the Chinese vaccines is a circular from the Civil Aviation Administration about recruiting flight attendants for a pilot vaccination scheme.

The document, stamped No. 1998 and reviewed by Asia Times, was issued at the end of August to all major carriers including Air China, China Southern and China Eastern. It noted vaccination would be implemented on a voluntary basis as part of the National Health Commission’s “emergency mobilization plan” to form a first line of defense among medical and other essential workers.  

A ground operation manager with Shenzhen Airlines told Asia Times that crew members, receptionists and other ground service personnel would be among the first to receive vaccines.

Previously, Chinese state media revealed such “emergency mobilization” had been launched on July 22 to vaccinate an unspecified number of nurses, public transport workers and even soldiers. But other reports noted that these essential workers and PLA personnel were just taking part in a third-stage trial of the Ad5-nCoV vaccine. 

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