China’s best-known epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan says he is far less certain than state media and drugmakers about when vaccines against Covid-19 can be ready. Photo: Weibo via Southern Daily

China’s top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan has broken his silence and put a damper on state propaganda and drugmakers’ bragging that locally made Covid-19 vaccines will be rolled out soon. 

The chorus by state media about how soon Chinese vaccines will be available has failed to convince top medical pundits like Zhong, who for months led an elite panel advising Beijing on strategies to whittle down infections in Wuhan and elsewhere during the height of the plague. 

Zhong offered a sobering reminder when addressing a healthcare forum in Beijing on Friday. 

“It would be way too optimistic to expect vaccines to be available by the year’s end, since final-stage human trials are long-haul, laborious endeavors,” Zhong was quoted as saying by China News Service. 

Veteran epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan. Photo: Xinhua

He has sought to debunk assertions by some Chinese scientists and pharmaceutical companies about the launch of their vaccines as early as November and December. 

So far the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group Co. (SinoPharm) as well as private entities including Sinovac Biotech and CanSinoBio have all cued the imminent arrival of their products.

SinoPharm’s subsidiary CNBG revealed earlier that “hundreds of thousands of participants” had received jabs with “no severe side effects seen in trials” and its two vaccine candidates would be primed for a year-end launch.

Wu Guizhen, the chief biosafety expert of China’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, also told state broadcaster China Central Television earlier this month that people could “get hold of at least one vaccine in November.”

But Zhong said he was far less certain. 

One major confounding factor cited in his address was China’s lack of Covid-19 patients for statistically viable comparison in clinical trials, which, as a result, had to be conducted abroad across more than 40 countries from Pakistan to Peru to ascertain safety and efficacy for use on people of different races and age groups and against a wide swath of strains.  

“Consolidating and crunching all the data can be time-consuming, let alone addressing any side effects observed and make changes to formulas and ingredients,” said Zhong, adding that it could also be a tall order to mass-vaccinate a significant portion of China’s 1.3 billion people to form herd immunity within a year or two.

“I think officials with the National Health Commission and top leaders are fully aware of the daunting tasks, despite the optimism we see in state media.”

The outspoken Zhong was feted by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a national commendation ceremony in the Great Hall of the People earlier this month. He received a top-honor medal from Xi in recognition of his “illustrious contribution” to China’s healthcare system and fight against Covid. 

Xi conferred a top-honor medal to Zhong Nanshan, head of an expert panel advising the top leadership. Photo: Xinhua

Asked during the virtual forum when ordinary Chinese people could be inoculated, Zhong said there may not be a timetable but many may be able to buy one or two vaccines at the end of 2021 or 2022. 

Beijing has not made any pledge to its people regarding mass vaccination, though its “vaccine diplomacy” is gaining momentum when Chinese leaders including Xi and Premier Li Keqiang as well as diplomats promise vaccines and medicine to several African and Southeastern Asian countries. 

Previous estimates cited by Chinese papers, however, indicated that about 0.2% of Chinese could get at least one jab by the end of the year and the vaccination level may be increased to 10% by 2022, meaning China will need to ensure doses for at least 13 million people. 

Zhong also said vaccines may not be a magical panacea and the highly contagious coronavirus may again rear its head in the upcoming winter, and may likely linger around for many more years. Thus, as he stressed, the stringent, grid-by-grid community surveillance, mass testing, contact tracing and isolation of asymptomatic carriers, an approach that paid off well in staving off previous flare-ups, must remain ready at all times. 

He cited a mathematical model developed by Lanzhou University that the June outbreak hitting a major food wholesale market in Beijing, so far the most severe resurgence after China largely “banished” the virus since March, could have infected 200,000 people in the capital city within three weeks had it not been for the containment and isolation measures put in place almost overnight.

Beijing went all out to contain any spillovers and eventually limited the caseload to about 330, who were mostly vendors at the market. The expert panel headed by Zhong declared the end of the outbreak two weeks after it erupted. The Xinfadi market has been buzzing again since mid-August, following two months of closure and thorough disinfection. 

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