People receive shots of homegrown vaccines inside a stadium in Beijing. Photo: China News Service

Time is running out in Beijing’s push to immunize no less than 40% of its 1.3 billion-plus population against the novel coronavirus by the end of June.

China’s top leadership is replicating the same cure-all mass mobilization tactic that helped the nation tide over waves of Covid resurgences a year ago to rev up a nationwide, no-one-left-behind drive to administer shots. 

All provinces and municipalities launched their roll-outs to most residents since late March and the clock is ticking and viral spillovers from Myanmar have ignited clusters in southwestern Yunnan province, ending China’s weeks-long streak of no new infections. 

The all-out blitz to shake off complacency and extend vaccine coverage to the masses has, nonetheless, hastened a relapse of some controversial practices once widespread during the height of China’s war to squash pneumonia back in early 2020.

In some extreme cases reported by Chinese media, stubborn anti-vaxxers are receiving the same treatment as confirmed patients as they are forced into isolation-like confinement centers for education or are publicly named and shamed.

Residents in the border city of Ruili in Yunnan, hit by the ongoing outbreak, also complain they have been evicted from their homes by hardline enforcers of Beijing’s vaccination mandate for compulsory tests, followed by what they call “coerced inoculations,” with some being pinned to the ground by police constables to receive jabs. 

The hefty outcry has forced the National Health Commission (NHC) to reassure that everything would be voluntary, but an official with Shanghai’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed to Asia Times that civil servants and state-owned enterprise employees in the city would not have such liberty and must take the lead. 

Medical workers brief residents on the risks and potential side effects of Covid vaccines, but most of the takers are mandated to get jabs. Photo: China News Service

Such blunt moves are somehow tolerable to Beijing, now that China is left in the wake of the global race to vaccinate populations and reflate industries. Data from the NHC show that, as of April 5, about 143 million doses had been given throughout the nation, equivalent to roughly 10% of the total population.

That figure compares unfavorably with the 18% two-dose rate across the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University’s vaccine take-up tracker. 

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top pulmonologist, has warned that America’s early stumbles in containing the virus could have led to “natural immunity” among the people there and, coupled with the Biden administration’s swift vaccine distribution, the nation may eventually open up again and emerge from the pandemic way earlier than China. 

“The US is heading for the finishing line of herd immunity, but there is no sign we’ll be rid of the virus in China anytime soon unless we all do our part and get jabs,” said Zhong. 

As the global fight enters the home stretch, Beijing’s self-claimed triumph over Covid is riding on how more Chinese people can roll up their sleeves within the next 12 weeks. The end-June 40% goal means about 34.75 million shots must be injected each week.

But even among those willing to heed the calls, ill feelings are rising over what are perceived as inequitable allocation and distribution. 

The initial immunogenicity and efficacy data widely reported by media and accessible on the website of the National Medical Products Administration clearly indicate a yawning potency disparity of the three indigenous drugs approved for mass use. 

Sinovac’s attenuated jab that makes up the bulk of vaccine supplies in China is marginally 50% effective, barely enough to set off the immune system as seen in overseas trials, whilst the two products of the same type from the state-owned SinoPharm are between 72.51% and 79.34% effective. 

‘Merely several months ago drugmakers were recruiting brave volunteers for complex clinical trials to assess safety and performance yet in almost a nanosecond these vaccines are now on people’s doorstep,’ read a report in the state-backed Caijing magazine.
People, having been vaccinated, wait in a room for medical observation at a community center in Beijing. Photos: Xinhua

People’s suspicion that more efficacious stocks are stacked in favor of the rich and powerful is fueled by the revelation that the 5,000-odd deputies of the National People’s Congress, mostly Communist Party cadres and entrepreneurs, received advance immunization using the better SinoPharm drugs in January and February, before the NPC convened its annual session last month.

Such priority supplies for the NPC and other VIPs were also confirmed by SinoPharm President Yu Qingming, also an NPC member. 

The contrast is where ordinary Chinese people are not allowed to pick from a pool of vaccines and more often than not are given Sinovac shots, since production at SinoPharm is reportedly hitting a bottleneck. 

Watchdogs and drugmakers appear to be holding back not only better batches, but also detailed data as Chinese media including the state-backed Caijing Magazine admited this week that compared with the prevalence of information about Western drugs like those from Pfizer and BioNTech, no complete, third-stage human trial data of Chinese ones had been furnished or published thus far.  

“Merely several months ago drugmakers were recruiting brave volunteers for complex clinical trials to assess safety and performance, yet in almost a nanosecond these vaccines are now on people’s doorstep,” read a report in Caijing, hinting people’s reluctance is understandable and that more data, transparency and options are needed to induce more confidence.  

Suggestions have also been made for SinoPharm to share its formula with Sinovac to crank out more, better drugs since the pair’s products are of the same type. 

Xinhua has also teased the people with the advent of a novel adenovirus vector vaccine co-developed by listed firm CanSinoBio and the People’s Liberation Army’s Military Sciences Academy, already greenlighted to hit the market earlier this year. Only one injection is needed and its efficacy rate is about 68%, according to CanSinoBio. 

But Chinese vaccines have suffered a fresh blow, after news broke of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan coming down with Covid despite receiving a SinoPharm shot last month.

Pakistan’s health authority, however, stressed that the leader could have caught the pathogen before his inoculation and that two doses and several weeks would be necessary to boost antibody levels, so people should refrain from jumping to any “premature conclusions.”

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