People wait on chairs after being inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine at the Chaoyang Museum of Urban Planning in Beijing on January 15, 2021. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

A universal vaccination drive has been underway in Beijing and 5 million people had already booked their shots last week as the city prepares to host the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – the top political advisory body – in one week.

Chinese authorities have been in overdrive getting the virus under control, not only in Beijing but around the regions, before the country’s biggest political event starts in the capital.

China reported the all-clear on Monday after the National Health Commission (NHC) removed the last county, in northeastern Heilongjiang province, from the list of medium-to-high risk Covid-hit areas. 

Also, a Beijing suburb that is home to the capital’s massive new Daxing Airport, where sporadic infections had long gone under the radar, has ridden its population of local transmissions for a fortnight and been taken off the NHC’s hotspot watchlist. 

The city of Shijiazhuang, the capital of nearby Hebei province, has also been declared “Covid-free,” less than two months after unreported clusters in rural districts there sparked the biggest Covid resurgence in China after the initial epicenter of Wuhan cleared its cases.

The NHC said partial lockdowns and mass testing blitzes in the city and throughout the rest of Hebei had paid off as no traces of the virus had been spotted for at least eight straight days. 

Shijiazhuang has resumed travel and reopened its airport and train stations, with passengers departing the city no longer subject to mandatory quarantine or testing when reaching their destinations. 

The NHC maintains a nationwide three-tier regime to indicate Covid infection risks for travelers, and any city, district or county falling in the high-risk group will be labeled “no-go” areas where sweeping lockdown, testing and isolation protocols will apply to snap infection chains and prevent viral spillovers.

Medium-risk areas will see curtailed travel and compulsory testing to stop emerging clusters from growing.  

Hebei’s provincial capital of Shijiazhuang has resumed travel after clearing all local transmissions. Photo: Xinhua

Clearing all high- and medium-risk areas in Beijing, Hebei and Heilongjiang means people throughout China now face very low risks of catching Covid. But the NHC has reminded people that the hassle of mask-wearing, temperature screening and health code inspection before they enter a public venue or take public transport is here to stay. 

While eliminating all local infections, for now, China logged 11 imported cases on Monday, according to the NHC. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese capital is not loosening up, when the NPC and the CPPCC will convene their annual plenary sessions next week. 

Beijing’s party chief Cai Qi, having taken the lead in getting jabs supplied by the Beijing-based Sinovac, said the plan was to immunize more than half the city’s 23 million residents in the second quarter and his goal of a no-one-left-behind citywide roll-out would be achieved quickly as long as Sinovac could crank out more doses for the city. 

Apart from preparing for the parliamentary session, Beijing’s aggressive drive to get hold of shots and encourage residents to roll up their sleeves is also part of its contingency plan for the Winter Olympics Games, to take place in February 2022.

Beijing is working out measures to keep out the virus and it insists the sporting pageant would be staged as scheduled and that all international athletes are welcome. 

By contrast, in other Chinese cities, people’s expectations for mass vaccinations are being tempered, two months after NHC Director Ma Xiaowei promised “free jabs for all Chinese.”

Local governments are taking time to draft and announce inoculation plans, an indication of tight supplies of homegrown drugs from Sinovac and SinoPharm, while the capital city has been accorded the top priority and shipments to other countries across Southeast Asia, Africa and South America are being made.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) stands with other Chinese leaders at the end of the closing session of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 28, 2020. Most of the deputies are wearing masks. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

It has also been reported by Chinese state media that before their upcoming trips to Beijing next week, thousands of NPC and CPPCC deputies and their accompanying assistants scattered across the nation had already taken the vaccine developed by the state-owned SinoPharm, which has a higher effectiveness performance of 79.34% than the Sinovac product’s roughly 50% efficacy.

Both drugs are of the same attenuated type and were green-lighted for use by Chinese regulatory watchdogs.  

There have been talks that a SinoPharm shot is hard to come by amid a production bottleneck as well as the fact that the NPC and CPPCC Standing Committees and other state government organs like the Foreign Ministry had scooped up available consignments for senior cadres, diplomats and other VIPs. 

As seen on past occasions, these NPC and CPPCC representatives will be seated close together in the grand auditorium of the Great Hall of the People, where President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and other state leaders will emerge from the central rostrum to open the annual ritual.

Organizers are taking no chances in their plans for advance inoculations for attendees using SinoPharm products to eliminate any chance of cross infections during the meetings and many penal discussions. 

Residents in Beijing’s Daxing district queue while spacing themselves out at a vaccination center. Beijingers are given the less effective Sinovac shots but people elsewhere across China wonder when they can expect a roll-out. Photo: Xinhua

These less efficacious doses from Sinovac will, therefore, make the bulk of supplies for Beijing residents to at least induce a certain level of herd immunity in the city.

The Beijing Daily noted that injections for all cabbies, bus drivers, immigration officers and medical workers, together with their family members, had been finished, with about half a million shots already administered.  

An assistant professor with the Peking University’s School of Governance told Asia Times that he had had a jab of an “unknown” domestic manufacturer as there were no other alternatives to choose from when the university mandated all staff be vaccinated before releasing them for the Chinese New Year break in early February. 

The academic, who declined to be named, said little information about the drug had been given during the first injection but he felt no discomfort, and he still continued to wear a mask while meeting students. He will get the second dose later this week and was told that protection could be maximized if two jabs can be given 14-21 days apart.  

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