A SinoPharm employee shows an attenuated Covid-19 vaccine which is nearing the end of its final-stage human trial. Photo: Xinhua

Some Chinese provinces are poised for mass vaccination of residents, with local governments set to unveil schemes before Covid-19 flare-ups as winter seems to be setting in early.

It appears that Beijing has opted to let individual provinces and municipalities work out their own inoculation programs rather than mandate a centralized one.

Progress in final-stage human trials of China National Pharmaceutical Industry Corp (SinoPharm) and its domestic peers has cued up the advent of Chinese vaccines. 

Zhejiang is the first province to have announced vaccination arrangements. The 58.5 million residents in the affluent eastern province near Shanghai can receive jabs starting from late November.

That said, the undisclosed number of initial batches sourced from SinoPharm would be reserved for high-risk groups covering medical and essential workers, immigration officers, cabbies, public transport workers, deliverymen, supermarket cashiers as well as crew members operating international routes, the province’s public health authority says. 

Follow-up vaccinations for ordinary residents will be on a first-come, first-served basis if there are any doses left and if an online registration and booking platform can be up and running.   

Medical workers in hazmat gear handle samples collected from passengers returning from overseas at an immigration checkpoint. Photo: Xinhua
A motorcyclist goes through a disinfection gate before being allowed to enter a school in Zhejiang province. Photo: China News Service

The Zhejiang Daily, the provincial mouthpiece, quoted Zhejiang’s director of public health as saying that a province-wide survey of high-risk personnel was underway. The province was talking to SinoPharm to procure doses, most likely attenuated vaccines developed by the state-owned drugmaker’s subsidiary China National Biotech Group, a key manufacturer of vaccines. 

It has been revealed that pilot vaccination has been kicked off in Jiaxing and Yiwu, even though no announcement has been made. The former is a prefecture-level city bordering Shanghai where all Zhejiang residents arriving from overseas via Shanghai’s airports are put in mandatory quarantine in hotels there, while the latter is a major trading hub for consumer goods with a sizable, ethnically mixed expat community of merchants from South Asia and the Middle East. 

A medical worker at a community health center in Yiwu told the Shanghai-based news portal The Paper that he had got hold of about 600 doses since last week and anyone, not necessarily high-risk personnel who were prioritized, could visit the center to queue up for injections. He added that other health centers and public hospitals in Yiwu would also be allocated consignments “very soon” and that only those aged between 18 and 59 would be eligible.  

Jiaxing’s Center for Disease Control said two doses would be recommended for optimal immunity against the coronavirus for six months to a year and there must be 14-28 days between injections. The cost is 200 yuan (US$30) per dose. 

Zhejiang’s health officials, nonetheless, said ordinary people would not need the vaccines now that most parts of the province and throughout China remained Covid-free.

Zhejiang is on a 126-day run of zero local infections since May, and its total caseload stands at 1,283, with just one fatality and there are currently only three patients being treated in the province, all are linked to traceable, imported clusters. 

One of the two attenuated Covid-19 vaccines developed by SinoPharm. Photo: Handout
Medical inspectors check a passenger car of Ningbo’s metro system in Zhejiang province. Photo: Xinhua

Yet Zhejiang cadres expect initial shipments from SinoPharm may be inadequate as other provinces and even the Chinese Foreign Ministry are all set to pounce on any batches available from suppliers. Beijing has assured neighbors and allies, from Pakistan to the Philippines and Morocco to Malaysia across Asia and Africa, of vaccine donations and transfer of formulas. Zhejiang is thus taking no chances amid the undersupply and has instead invested billions of yuan to ensure redundant capacity in each city and county to fend off resurgences. 

The Zhejiang Daily noted a ratio of 1:100 – no less than 100 isolation rooms for each confirmed case – in the province’s updated contingency plan to prepare for a relapse of the disease. The province’s cluster of labs can test 360,000 samples in a day and there are 29,000 beds in negative pressure wards reserved for Covid patients. An epidemiological investigation and contact tracing must be finished within 24 hours once a case is confirmed for swift lockdown and quarantine. 

The province is also rolling out free seasonal influenza vaccination for residents aged above 70 and other vulnerable people. 

Other populous provinces with extensive overseas exchanges like Guangdong, Jiangsu and Fujian are also finalizing plans to vaccinate residents, according to China News Service.     

Meanwhile, China’s top pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan, the face of the nation’s academia in the fight against the pandemic, told a symposium this week that it had been almost two weeks since the end of China’s eight-day National Day Golden Week holiday travel rush that began on October 1 and saw more than 600 million Chinese get out and about across the nation. 

Zhong said that no new infections had been reported nationwide throughout the holiday week and after it ended, giving indisputable credence to Beijing’s claim that the virus has consistently been kept at bay in mainland China since April. 

The only local infections reported this month all had links to imported cases in Qingdao, a port city in the northern Shandong province. The city has scrambled to test nearly all of its 9.5 million residents within the past week and the city’s government told Xinhua that local chains of infections had been “completely smashed” via contact tracing and partial lockdowns.  

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