Waves of Chinese students and businesspeople are flocking overseas, apparently undaunted by the rampaging coronavirus. But first, many of them are making a beeline for Yiwu, a bourgeoning trading hub in eastern Zhejiang province.
They are not there for its consumer goods, but for the first batches of Chinese Covid-19 vaccines. Since October, Yiwu has quietly rolled out what may be the world’s first mass inoculation.
Crowds are swamping a community health center in the city, about 300 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, when jabs against the virus are still hard to come by in other cities or regions throughout China.
In Yiwu, non-locals along with the city’s dwellers and traders can also get their shots as long as they can secure injection slots online.
Local papers say stocks are already running low as Yiwu reels in those from cities across Zhejiang as well as residents from Shanghai, Jiangsu and even Guangdong.
People are racing to pounce on the attenuated Covid vaccines once stocks are replenished, reputedly by SinoVac Bio, a Beijing-based, Nasdaq-listed drugmaker that is ahead of the global pack in the rush to vanquish the respiratory disease.
Few of the vaccine-hunting hordes in Yiwu appear to worry about efficacy and safety or the elusive means of approving and certifying indigenous drugs as authorities and pharmaceutical firms are seen as holding back vital details about final-stage human trials.
Nonetheless, all receivers must sign a disclaimer informing them of a catalog of potential risks including serious side effects such as anaphylactic shock and coma, according to those who have received their shots.
China’s National Health Commission is yet to grant licenses to any vaccine candidate, thus the injection program in Yiwu is part of an “emergency inoculation” program supposedly for selected groups only. But the city’s pro-forma eligibility vetting means almost everyone can receive jabs, as long as stock lasts.
Applicants can book a slot on a registration webpage, with many from outside the city using falsified local employment proof to be eligible, according to local papers. Each is administered two doses for 400 yuan (US$61), with 14 days between each injection.
A Shanghai student who needed to return to his university in the United Kingdom told the Lianhe Zaobao newspaper that his Chinese classmates and others who must travel abroad for business had all been heading to Yiwu to jostle for vaccines.
Many traders and businesspeople are also lining up outside the Yiwu clinic as they are eager to venture overseas to tap business opportunities emerging elsewhere, when most foreign markets have become deprived of competition, because rivals from other countries are still housebound amid lockdowns or dare not to travel.
Zhejiang’s Deputy Governor Cheng Yuechong, who oversees public health affairs, told a press conference in mid-October that more than 743,000 residents in the province had been vaccinated within about a month since September. He said Zhejiang’s extensive business exchanges with the West justified its early, large-scale immunization efforts.
Xinhua also quoted Yiwu’s government as saying that being a trading center with frequent people and goods movements as well as a sizable expat community, the city had “exigent need” for more vaccines for a pilot inoculation program ahead of other cities to gain experience for others to follow.
But until now, the National Health Commission still maintains that “emergency vaccination” should only cover high-risk groups such as medical staff, border control officers and other essential workers.
Meanwhile, state-owned SinoPharm this week filed its formal application with the National Medical Products Administration for its vaccines to hit the market as soon as December.
But SinoPharm president Liu Jingzhen stirred controversy last week with his claim that among the million-plus volunteers and medical workers at home and abroad who had received shots, none had suffered any outward, severe side effect.
He did not elaborate on SinoPharm’s definition of severe side effects when asked by reporters. Soon, even the nationalistic Global Times noted in an op-ed this week that key drugmakers should be more forthcoming about their trials if they were genuinely confident about their vaccines.
It has also been revealed by a WeChat account managed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that Foreign Minister Wang Yi had got his shots before embarking on whistle-stop visits across Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea since last month. Wang was exempted from quarantine in these countries but Japan’s new ambassador to China, Tarumi Hideo, is now in 14-day quarantine in his embassy after arriving in Beijing this week.