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

With China now lagging other countries in the race to vaccinate their populations against the novel coronavirus, Beijing’s top health officials have vowed to play catch-up and overtake the West.

Chinese health officials and pundits have intimated they will catch or even overtake the US in the next three months by giving shots to a projected 40% of the population. 

While China continues to lay propaganda claim to being the world leader at vanquishing the virus, with no local transmissions reported for nearly a fortnight, it is now trailing the West in mass inoculation. 

US President Joe Biden has said the US will have enough vaccines for all American adults by May, two months earlier than he had previously indicated after Merck agreed to help rival drugmaker Johnson & Johnson produce shots.

In comparison, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) and local government agencies have tarried in their roll-outs, even after the NHC vowed at the end of 2020 that all Chinese would receive free jabs. 

The vaccination headway being made in the US and UK in particular suggests the West may emerge quicker from the pandemic than previously anticipated, despite early stumbles in their campaigns. 

The encouraging progress being made in the US was confirmed by Tom Frieden, the former chief of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, when he compared notes with his Chinese counterpart Zhong Nanshan – China’s top pulmonologist who heads the NHC’s expert panel on Covid – at a virtual symposium co-hosted by the Brookings Institution and China’s Tsinghua University on Monday.

Frieden said so far roughly 22% of Americans had received their first jabs. Zhong said that China’s corresponding figure was “alarmingly low” at less than 4% of its 1.4 billion population. 

Zhong, feted by Chinese President Xi Jinping with a top honors medal for his contribution to managing the pandemic, warned that a slow vaccine roll-out would lead to more mutant strains of the virus that have proven to be more contagious.

He called on China and the US to form a “united front” on Covid-19 that pulls together their respective inoculation plans. 

A man works in the packaging facility of Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech during a government-organized media tour in Beijing, China, on September 24, 2020. Photo: Handout/Agencies

Zhang Wenhong, Zhong’s colleague who advises Shanghai’s government on Covid-19, also warned at the online symposium that China risks becoming a “gaping hole” if it continues to lag other populous nations in inoculations.

Zhang said China’s early success in containing the virus was increasingly a drag on its vaccination drive, as a sense of complacency has appeared to set in. 

Zhong argued that China could still mobilize quickly, announcing at the forum the Chinese CDC’s ambitious goal to inoculate 40% of China’s population, or 560 million people, by the end of June. He did not elaborate, though, if that timeline was for the first of two-shot inoculations. 

“China can’t afford to shut its border and curtail international travel for too long as exchanges and economic activities must resume. We have injected 52 million doses thus far but only 3.56% of Chinese are covered … Drastically increasing take-up to 40% by July is a daunting undertaking and we have a really tight timeframe but we have already created miracles in the past,” said Zhong.

He told Reuters a day later that the end-June goal may have to be pushed back by at least a month given some people’s reluctance and even resistance to being vaccinated. 

Zhang, the Shanghai government’s Covid adviser, also said the 40% immunization goal would be attainable if Beijing could marshal its army of medical workers throughout the nation for an all-out blitz to give 5 million shots each day starting from this week.

He also said at Monday’s forum that ample supplies would be guaranteed, as Chinese drugmakers were set to crank out a total of 2.1 billion vials by the end of the year.

China had an early start when health authorities green-lighted the emergency use of domestic vaccine candidates for medical personnel last June when these drugs were still in the process of overseas final-stage human trials. 

Chinese drug watchdogs have so far granted conditional approvals to four indigenous vaccines, including three attenuated drugs from Sinovac and the state-owned SinoPharm, as well as a novel recombinant adenovirus vector vaccine co-developed by CanSinoBio and the People’s Liberation Army. 

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

Some Chinese have been critical of the government’s response. One sign of the ill-ease is recent posts on WeChat and Weibo comparing Beijing’s vaccine donations and shipments to foreign recipient countries with the sluggish domestic roll-out. Those critical comments have been swiftly erased by state censors. 

An expert with Shanghai’s CDC told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that Zhong and other experts had initially advised prioritizing at-risk groups like medical workers and immigration officers at airports and border checkpoints for shots to form a line of defense, instead of sweeping inoculations for all.

He said that until now there were cadres still arguing that giving jabs to the masses would not be economical since a large swathe of the country remained Covid-free. 

That said, Beijing appears to realize that its low vaccine coverage could risk China being shut out of the new global order when vaccinated countries open up their economies and borders. 

In that post-pandemic direction, Chinese CDC officials have started to talk up the prospect of unfettered travel between China and the US as early as this summer or fall.

Wu Zunyou, the Chinese CDC’s chief infectious disease specialist, was quoted by Reuters and Chinese papers as saying that reciprocal streamlined checks or even no checks on passengers between the world’s two largest economies could be a reality by August, as long as the US ratcheted up efforts to cover 90% of its population by that time.

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