A woman receives a vaccination at a hospital in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

A pharmaceutical company with one of China’s largest private conglomerates is set to offer Chinese citizens more Covid-19 vaccine options when select groups gear up for a priority inoculation program to be rolled out early next year. 

The Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma noted earlier this month in a filing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that it aimed to buy 100 million doses of vaccine from its German partner, BioNTech, which, subject to regulatory approval, will be sold across mainland China in 2021.   

The company will pay €250 million (US$314.6 million) for the first batch of 50 million doses made in Germany, with half of the payment to be made by December 30, according to the same document.

It did not disclose when the first and second batches would be shipped to China. The company is a subsidiary of Fosun Group, whose business spans health, realty, insurance and wealth management.   

The move has raised certain questions about Chinese state media claims on the efficacy and production-capacity of indigenously-made vaccines. At least five candidates are already nearing the end of their final-stage of clinical trials at home and abroad.

Last week, the National Health Commission also announced a “priority immunization scheme” to cover 50 million doctors, nurses, police and immigration officers nationwide before the start of the Chinese New Year break in February. 

There are concerns that when the world’s most populous nation joins the global scramble for the limited number of produced vaccines, the supply crunch could be further aggravated. 

The Fosun import deal is believed to be purely commercial, and not part of Beijing’s broader purchase, distribution and vaccination plan, which is still being worked out and implemented.

Beijing is expediting efforts to launch made-in-China vaccines that cram what would normally be years worth of development and trials into a mere 10 months, with state-owned drugmakers like Sinopharm and the Chinese military taking the lead.

But the government has no plan, at least not yet, to shut out private firms such as Fosun to source and sell foreign-made vaccines.  

A vile of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: AFP/Ricardo Arduengo

The vaccines to be imported by Fosun are of the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) type developed by BioNTech and Pfizer and recently authorized for inoculation in the United States, United Kingdom and other Western countries. 

But Pfizer is reportedly not a party to the purchase deal Fosun entered with BioNTech back in March, which will allow the Chinese importer to sell the vaccine once approved by Chinese regulators and the initial batches are shipped and allocated.    

Different from traditional attenuated and inactivated vaccines like those under production by Sinopharm and Sinovac, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response against the coronavirus. And, unlike the two-week interval recommended between having two shots of attenuated vaccines, the mRNA type from BioNTech needs 21 days between the first and second injections.  

Fosun confirmed to Asia Times that the mRNA vaccine, registered as BNT162b2 with the State Medical Products Administration, had already entered its second-stage human trial in two cities in eastern Jiangsu province. The company said no severe side effects were observed in the trial’s 960 participants aged between 18 and 85 as of December 19.

Like the overseas trials of Chinese vaccines held across Asia, the Middle East and South America, thorough trials and assessments must be conducted in China before foreign drugs are allowed to be sold in China.  

Fosun added that the vaccine could possibly skip third-stage trials if related data and analyses from overseas is recognized by the Chinese government. 

Hui Aimin, Fosun’s chief medical officer overseeing drug development, told the China Business News that the company had also contacted the State Medical Products Administration to adjust the assessment parameters of the ongoing second-stage trial in Jiangsu. He said none of the 960 participants recruited for the trial had been exposed to the coronavirus before. China largely stamped out its Covid-19 outbreak since April. 

“We are required by Chinese laws to have such trials [of the foreign vaccine] in the country but we are unable to reach a statistically significant infection rate for the trial because Jiangsu, like elsewhere across the country, is mostly Covid-free,” said Hui.

“The Chinese medical product authority has thus agreed to focus on the vaccine’s safety and antibody levels during the second-stage trial, and scrap other requirements that would have been necessary [for its approval].” 

An epidemiologist with Shanghai’s municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Asia Times that “temporary supply crunches” may still occur in some parts of China, even if domestic vaccines become widely available. 

An attenuated vaccine developed by the state-owned Sinopharm. Photo: Xinhua

“We are talking about more than 1.3 billion people in the country, and to form meaningful herd immunity, at least 60-70% of them must receive shots. And don’t forget that two shots are required,” said the expert.  

Furthermore, Beijing has repeatedly assured the developing world, from Southeast Asia to Africa, of vaccine donations and the sharing of its formulas and ingredients. Yet it is unclear if Chinese residents will be allowed to choose between homemade vaccines and Western-made ones when various types from various suppliers hit the market late next year. 

National Health Commission deputy director Lei Haichao said last week at a press conference on the country’s vaccination plans that he had full confidence in all Chinese vaccine candidates, adding that his own opinion was that Chinese people should decide on their own whether to receive shots and make their own choice of either indigenous or foreign vaccines.  

Fosun will also supply 7.5 million mRNA vaccines to Hong Kong in the first quarter of 2021, according to the city’s government. 

Read more: HK secures enough vaccines for double its population