An attenuated vaccine developed by China's state-owned SinoPharm. Photo: Xinhua

China now has more than three Covid-19 vaccines at various stages of their final clinical trials and the country is on the cusp of mass production and inoculation.

This comes as Beijing scrambles medical workers and epidemiologists in an effort to snap chains of infections after sporadic outbreaks hit key cities like Shanghai and Tianjin. 

The latest sign of speeding up the production and immunization drive – a bonanza for Chinese drugmakers – comes from Deputy Premier Sun Chunlan, a member of the Communist Party’s high-powered Politburo and Beijing’s point man on Covid-19 containment. 

On Wednesday and Thursday, Sun inspected a cluster of research institutes, pharmaceutical firms, production lines and industry watchdogs in Beijing that have been leading the charge with vaccines. 

While visiting the lab of the China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group (SinoPharm), Sun was quoted by Xinhua as saying that she expected a “quick turnaround” from regulators in their approval of those promising vaccine candidates and that drugmakers must now stack ingredients and calibrate their equipment in readiness to start operations once Beijing gives the go-ahead. 

She also inspected Sinovac, another frontrunning developer of vaccines.

Deputy Premier Sun Chunlan (2nd from right) inspects a lab at drugmaker SinoPharm. Photo: Xinhua

With public health under her purview, Sun turned the corner of China’s initially botched response to the coronavirus in February. She flew into Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic, and marshaled and commanded a contingent of doctors and equipment to the city and eventually stamped out the pathogen after a 76-day city-wide lockdown. 

State media reports now suggest that Sun is again making all the running in regulatory approval, production, distribution and inoculation of Chinese vaccines.

At the National Medical Products Administration, she asked watchdogs to raise the bar and apply “internationally recognized standards and protocols” in their vetting and approval to ensure the vaccines would be up to scratch. 

A Xinhua circular about Sun’s speech during her inspection visits also revealed that she had been chairing a State Council panel tasked with drafting a nationwide distribution and triage plan to accord vaccination priority to those in urgent need.  

Last month, a WeChat account managed by the Foreign Ministry also revealed that Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Council leaders in charge of public health affairs had all received jabs as they must shuttle between countries and domestic outbreak hotspots to discharge their duties. 

SinoPharm subsidiary CNBG is wrapping up the final-stage trials of its vaccine. Photo: Handout
A research lab of Sinovac, a Chinese biotech firm that has also developed a vaccine. Photo: Xinhua

A separate Xinhua report noted that initial batches of vaccines would be primed for frontline medical centers and border checkpoints. By the end of the year all medical staff, immigration and customs officers and other essential personnel across the nation would be included in the “emergency but voluntary vaccination program,” with vetted participants reputedly being administered two doses of the vaccine from SinoPharm.  

The state-owned drug-making conglomerate also filed applications with authorities at the end of November for its vaccines to hit the market, with SinoPharm President Liu Jingzhen reportedly vowing in his report to Sun that once approved, the group could deliver 100 million doses by the year’s end and scale up its turnover to 1 billion by the end of 2021.

China is expected to order in bulk from producers for both mass vaccination at home and donations to a number of countries from Asia to Africa. 

On Friday, Xinhua and other state media outlets also quoted National Health Commission officials as saying that 600 million doses – matching half of China’s population – would be ready by the New Year break, though no specific breakdown of supply sources was given in related reports. 

Other than an attenuated vaccine from its CNBG arm inspected by the deputy premier, another vaccine candidate of the same type from SinoPharm’s Wuhan Institute of Bio Products is also making headway in final trials. 

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

An epidemiologist with Shanghai’s Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Asia Times that SinoPharm and Sinovac were playing it safe with their vaccines, developed with existing research platforms and manufacturing capacities.

He said such vaccines were based on safe, weakened viruses to simulate a natural infection to trigger an immune response. 

“Chinese drugmakers have changed the calculus of their vaccine R&D to try to cram as much as 10 years worth of research work into just eight to 10 months, and that would have not been possible had it not been for the existing groundwork and knowledge we already have about attenuated vaccines, a path that is time-tested and proven to be safe as most of the vaccines we already have against various diseases fall into this category,” said the expert. 

But he also added that such vaccines may not be the most effective ones, as the immune response induced may be weak or not long-lasting.

“The first Covid vaccines we will have are for sure of the attenuated type from SinoPharm and the like, but their efficacy remains to be seen … To ensure better protection we will need more than one dose.

“All governments, not just China, are placing huge orders on drugmakers even without knowing how effective these vaccines will turn out to be. But given time, better vaccines will emerge and China is also trialing other vaccines developed with frontier technologies,” added the expert, who requested anonymity. 

An adenovirus vector vaccine is also in its final trial, developed by a team from the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, in collaboration with CanSino Biologics.

The project’s leader, Major General Chen Wei, was feted by President Xi Jinping at a commendation ceremony in Beijing in September which declared “China’s victory over Covid-19.”

The vaccine uses an adenovirus containing the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2, the strain that causes Covid-19, for the immune system to recognize the spike protein and trigger a response. However, the vaccine is not included in the pilot emergency inoculation programs, but PLA soldiers are said to have received shots. 

Read more: China’s new wave: the queue for Covid vaccination