A box of the Covid-19 vaccine produced by the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech. Photo: AFP / Nelson Almeida

At least a million priority or at-risk Chinese have had their first shots of indigenous Covid-19 vaccines after guidelines kicked in on December 15.

Several populous provinces and gateway cities from Guangdong to Shandong and Henan to Shanghai are included as Beijing triages vaccine distribution to regions more exposed to Covid flare-ups and “backflows.”

The interim goal, cited by the National Health Commission (NHC) and Xinhua, is to immunize at least 15 million police officers and medical and customs personnel by the Chinese New Year in mid-February.

Zheng Zhongwei, chief of a State Council task force on vaccine research, development and inoculation, told a State Council press conference on December 21 that all injections would be “transparent and voluntary.” 

Yet initial feedback from those chosen for the pilot scheme appears to be less than ideal. As seen on forums and WeChat groups popular among medical workers and immigration officers and through Asia Times’ interviews of airport workers in Shanghai, major complaints center around the elusive manner in which these drugs are produced and administered. 

One airfreight inspector at Shanghai Pudong Airport’s parcel processing center, operated by China’s dominant courier SF Express, told Asia Times that no one was informed of the type or producer of the vaccine they were given.  

“Vaccination is free of charge but we were not allowed to check the packaging or the syringes, and we were warned beforehand not to take any photos of the entire process,” said the airport worker.

He added that each dose had its own individual packaging and those given their first jabs must report their temperature and general health for at least a week to a central register operated by the city’s health authority. 

A consent form allowing collection and sharing of personal information and documents renouncing the right to pursue vaccine producers in the event of any adverse effects must be signed beforehand. 

SinoPharm’s attenuated vaccine against Covid-19, developed by its subsidiary CNBG. Photo: Handout

Shanghai’s Airport Authority, meanwhile, said last week that all 25,000-odd staff at Pudong, one of China’s busiest international gateways and one of the only three airports across the nation still receiving international flights, would be vaccinated within a month.

In November, an airfreight container from the United States suspected to be containing “tainted cold-chain products” was blamed for a cluster hitting Pudong, as about six cargo workers and their family members came down with the virus. 

China Eastern, based in Shanghai, has also “strongly urged” crews operating international routes and related ground support staff to get shots, after China’s Civil Aviation Administration secured doses from local drugmakers at the end of November.

A spokesperson at China Eastern’s Shanghai head office told Asia Times that most of its cabin crew members had got their first shots, though he said more than one type of vaccine was used as the interval required between each injection would vary from one week to 14 days. 

It is believed that three attenuated vaccines, supplied by the state-owned SinoPharm and listed drugmaker Sinovac, could be used in these injection programs. 

On Wednesday, SinoPharm made public data from its final-stage human trials conducted overseas, claiming an overall 79% efficacy rate, while Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said their mRNA vaccine was 98% effective. 

The United Arab Emirates has also approved SinoPharm’s registration application, having accredited a “satisfactory outcome” from trials there. Earlier, Sinovac’s attenuated vaccine got official endorsement from Brazil and Turkey, where trials had been held, with efficacy rates from more than 50% to 91%, according to data from these two countries. Both Hong Kong and Singapore have placed orders with Sinovac for millions of doses. 

Still, calls have been made to enhance transparency for people to make informed decisions about vaccination and make public different types from different producers for them to choose. 

Earlier, SinoPharm turned down requests from a group of parents of children who suffered severe complications due to substandard and fake rabies and pertussis vaccines in a 2018 scandal. SinoPharm said provenance of its Covid vaccine ingredients was “proprietary information.”

A bottle reading Vaccine Covid-19 next to Chinese National Pharmaceutical Sinopharm logo. Photo: AFP/Joel Saget

And the airport and border checkpoint workers chosen for priority vaccination are not without anti-vaxxers. 

Some said on WeChat that wide injection being rolled out across the nation was indeed another human trial and they resisted becoming “lab rats.” Some fear serious side effects on the typical physical constitution of the Chinese population. Others claim vaccines safe for Caucasians and other races may not necessarily be safe for Chinese. 

An online survey by news portal NetEase last week also revealed that among the roughly 3,500 netizens who participated, 40% said they would not rush to get jabs even after Beijing launches universal vaccination programs.

One major reason given was that immunization was not needed as large tracts of China, in particular in small cities and towns, remained Covid-free after the country flattened the infection curve and squashed resurgences.   

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