A production line for the Sinovac vaccine in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

About 20 million Chinese in priority inoculation schemes have been given jabs against Covid-19 as of Tuesday as authorities battle to maintain trust after seizures of fake vaccines.

A total of 40.52 million doses, believed to be attenuated shots from domestic drugmakers such as Sinopharm and Sinovac, have been administered, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).

Medical personnel, immigration officers, public transport workers and cold chain operators were first in line of the immunization drive in the lead up to the Chinese New Year break that starts on Friday. 

NHC spokesperson Mi Feng told a State Council press briefing on Wednesday that mass testing blitzes as well as segregation and monitoring of those infected and their close contacts had paid off well in Hebei, Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces where Covid resurgences in rural areas and counties had threatened to spill into Beijing and other cities. 

“For three consecutive days since this week, China has not reported any more locally transmitted cases or new carriers of the virus who do not display onward symptoms,” said Mi.

But people must not loosen up even when the nation takes a week-long break to ring in the Lunar New Year, and gatherings that bring out big crowds must be avoided. Mi also warned that the biggest “side effect” of the mass immunization drive, which is set to include the elderly, could be a false sense of security after getting jabs. 

“The Chinese vaccines are safe and these shots protect you from Covid but don’t forget your mask,” is the advice from the NHC. It says it takes time to form herd immunity as more people get the vaccine in coming months.

A SinoPharm employee at a Beijing plant examines injectors of the company’s attenuated Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: Xinhua

Meanwhile, more revelations about fake vaccines in the country are making some worry about the safety, efficacy and provenance of the substance being injected. Jabs are usually mandatory for essential workers covered by pilot immunization plans, without much vaccine information being furnished by suppliers and the NHC when they get the shots. 

Earlier this week, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in Beijing laid charges against about 70 counterfeiters arrested in nationwide busts since January.

Xinhua revealed that in one case, investigators found far more bogus doses in raids spanning Beijing, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces than the amount confiscated in initial arrests in Jiangsu last month.

A total of 58,000 doses made from saline and tap water were seized after criminals sought to palm them off as genuine products from SinoPharm. Crime proceeds of more than 18 million yuan (US$2.78 million) were frozen, according to court indictments. 

The state prosecutor’s revelation alludes to the health and drug watchdog’s cavalier attitude and has put the State Council and top leaders overseeing drug development and distribution on the warpath. The NHC has scrambled to assure people that all vaccines being rolled out are genuine and no such drugs can be sold or bought on the retail market.  

The NHC has also decided to wheel out more experts for talks and interviews in state media to induce more confidence. One recent claim about the “foolproof” quality of Chinese shots is from Shao Yimin, a lead researcher with the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention who also reputedly sits on a World Health Organization expert panel on vaccine research and development. 

Shao stirred hot discussion among Chinese netizens after he told an NHC symposium in Beijing and state broadcaster China Central Television this week that China’s attenuated and inactivated vaccines could endure “extreme temperatures” as high as 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) without compromising their effectiveness. 

“Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines are said to be more than 90% effective but doses must be chilled at 70 degrees below freezing so it’s not designed for the developing world,” Shao said.

“Our vaccines only need to be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures of 2-8 degrees and our experiment shows that when exposed to a harsh, hot environment for weeks, they are still good for use to protect people from Covid so these drugs are for poor countries,” said Shao. 

Feng Duojia, president of the semiofficial China Vaccine Industry Association affiliated with the NHC, told the Southern Weekly newspaper that 1.8 billion attenuated doses could be shipped by 18 manufacturers across the country for 2021 and that it had been eight months since he got jabs and antibody levels in his body, as shown in virus-neutralizing antibody tests, continued to meet vaccine design parameters.  

A container loaded with Sinovac vaccines is offloaded from a plane at Jakarta’s airport for human trials in Indonesia. Photo: Handout

Meanwhile, Beijing’s first consignment of vaccine donations for Africa arrived in Equatorial Guinea on Wednesday. Xinhua quoted the nation’s president Teodoro Obiang as saying that he looked forward to receiving jabs and that Beijing’s benevolence and altruism were the “only hope for his country.”

It is also reported that Beijing’s embassy there noted that vaccines only needed to be kept in home refrigerators and no other special equipment would be needed for storage and delivery. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also promised Indonesia more shipments of Sinovac vaccine after President Joko Widodo got the second shot at the end of last month. 

Wang said Chinese vaccines could better suit the need of tropical, populous nations like Indonesia that are still grappling with unrelenting outbreaks, and that China would share formulas and ingredients to turn Indonesia into a vaccine manufacturing and logistics hub for the entire Southeast Asia. 

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