The Covid-19 vaccines manufactured by BioNTech (left) and Sinovac (right). Photo: biontech.de/Xinhua

China’s tepid use of Covid vaccine sorely needs a shot in the arm. The nation’s overall coverage rate – the numbers of those who have had at least one shot – now hovers around 12% of the 1.3 billion-plus population more than a month after the launch of a nationwide roll-out to inoculate almost all residents, including seniors. 

Vaccination hesitancy is still widespread in the world’s most populous country, where Covid-19 is believed to have first appeared at the end of 2019. Yet not all of those shunning the calls to get shots are obstinate anti-vaxxers – they are just skeptical of homegrown vaccines.

However, soon they will be allowed to choose the type of vaccine being widely administered in the West. 

In a hint about a new scheme using the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) shots, Gao Fu, the director of China’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, conceded for the first time at a vaccine symposium last week that existing indigenous jabs may not induce a satisfactory immune response.

He conceded that technologies proven to be highly efficacious should be considered, hailing the “endless possibilities” arising from the mRNA formula.

The three domestic vaccines now making up the bulk of injections in China all fall into the traditional attenuated category and are supplied by SinoPharm and Sinovac. Their effectiveness rates have fluctuated widely, from marginally above 50% to nearly 80%, in various overseas clinical trials which have differences in methodology and definitions. 

Since Gao’s candid admission about local vaccines, health workers and others have been ramping up demands for Beijing to approve the mRNA candidate from German drugmaker BioNTech, which is 95% effective.

Its Chinese partner, the Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma, has long had a license and distribution deal, with 100 million doses reportedly primed for China this year.    

The prospects are improving for Fosun to sell the shots, whose immunogenicity and efficacy data impressed Gao and his peers. Hui Aimin, Fosun’s chief executive president and chief medicine officer, revealed at the same forum attended by Gao that 960 volunteers had been recruited for the vaccine’s second phase human trial in China and that safety data and side effect occurrence all dovetailed with previous observations in the West. 

The first consignment of BioNTech vaccines from Germany is unloaded from a Cathay Pacific cargo plane in Hong Kong in February. Fosun is the exclusive distributor of the mRNA vaccine across the Greater China Region. Photo: Handout

Stopping short of answering questions about why Fosun still had to duplicate the mRNA vaccine trials long conducted and widely recognized in the West, Hui said Fosun had to comply with Chinese rules and assessment protocols, even if a drug had been approved for use abroad.  

Fosun Pharma is a subsidiary of one of China’s largest non-state-owned conglomerates with businesses spanning realty, transport and medicine. Fosun founder and president Guo Guangchang told shareholders at an annual general meeting at the end of last month that “state interests would trump Fosun’s gains and profitability” in vaccine development and distribution.

He said in early 2020 when Covid was still ravaging China, he decided to take the plunge and bet on BioNTech’s cutting-edge mRNA technologies for shots to be one day shipped to China and his company was prepared to write off the hefty outlay and advance purchase deal payment if the mRNA vaccine failed to do what it was supposed to. 

A development and license agreement with BioNTech stipulated that Fosun had to make a lump sum payment of US$85 million and surrender 35% of its revenue from the upcoming sale of the shots in China.    

Guo said Fosun entered the partnership with BioNTech in March 2020 as an exclusive agent for commercialization in the Greater China Region, even well before US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer could clinch a similar deal with the German company. Fosun has been supplying shots to Hong Kong and Macau since February.  

The BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine Photo: biontech.de

Guo did not respond to questions about Fosun seeking a full transfer of BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA formula for localized production in China or if it would share Fosun’s understanding of the frontier technology with a local firm.  

Foreign media including the Wall Street Journal reported last week that foreign chambers of commerce in China were also pushing Beijing to approve the BioNTech drug to vaccinate foreign executives who travel between China and the West as a way of opening up borders.

The American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai told China Business News that Shanghai officials had guaranteed an end-July approval deadline for the vaccine to hit the market, presumably mainly for inoculations for foreign expats living in the city.

Xinhua also reported on Sunday that a “handful” of Chinese companies had been revving up their development of mRNA drugs and that the State Medical Product Administration would prioritize its “regulatory support and guidance” for indigenous products to compete against foreign rivals as part of Beijing’s new tech self-reliance drive. 

The state news agency quoted Gao as saying that mRNA technologies could herald a new era of vaccine development that would supplant existing, traditional platforms and methods and that China must strive to play catch-up and close the gap in research and production. 

It has been revealed that Abogen Bio, a start-up company based in Suzhou, near Shanghai, had teamed up with the People’s Liberation Army’s Military Sciences Academy for an mRNA candidate, now wrapping up its second stage human trial in the country.