A young girl gets her first dose of vaccine against Covid-19 at a community center in Guangzhou. Photo: Handout

The clock is ticking on China’s immunization blitz. The next 30 days or so will see if it can deliver on key Covid control imperatives such as fully vaccinating 40% of its population, or 560 million people, by the end of June.

All the numbers suggest Beijing has its work cut out. National Health Commission (NHC) statistics show that about 550 million doses have been administered nationwide as of Wednesday, and close to 140 million people have received two jabs.

That’s about 9% of the population. Back-of-envelop calculations suggest that daily injections must be ramped up to no fewer than 20 million doses between now and the end of June to cross the 40% threshold and build on plans toward herd immunity.

Thus far the daily record was set on May 20, when 17.18 million doses were given. 

Yet Zhong Nanshan, China’s top pulmonologist who leads an elite expert panel that advises Beijing on containing the virus, candidly reminded officials and his peers at a recent online symposium that China must set a higher bar for realizing meaningful herd immunity, and should not just settle on the internationally recognized 70% standard.

His words alluded to the mediocre efficacy rates of homegrown shots that range between 50% and 80% as seen in overseas trials and expanded inoculations. 

“If all vaccines can be 80% effective in insulating us from Covid and preventing severe comorbidities, then the overall full vaccination rate for herd immunity should be 72.9%,” Zhong said.

“The plain truth is the higher the merrier and we should not just stop at 40% or 70% and think that Covid will simply run its course, because it won’t unless we get infinitely close to 100% vaccine coverage.”

A medical worker holds a stack of vaccine from Chinese drugmaker Sinovac. Photo: Handout
The number of jabs administered across China has jumped from fewer than 100 million doses at the end of March to over 500 million in May. Source: National Health Commission

At the same event, experts with China’s National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention heralded the advent of China’s own messenger ribonucleic acid shots with their potency on a par with the ones being widely injected across the West. The Chinese alternative to the cutting-edge products from BioNTech in Germany and Moderna in the United States is now entering initial human trials overseas. 

Urging the State Medical Products Administration to approve the Chinese mRNA shot on the double, Chinese CDC officials like its director Gao Fu even contended that herd immunity could be within “touching distance.” Some anti-vaxxers in China say they shun government calls because they are underwhelmed by the effectiveness of existing drugs.

But Beijing’s time-tested mass mobilization and grid-by-grid community campaigns may still be the most useful cure for vaccine hesitancy as local cadres brush aside skepticism and even objections with their blunt mandatory inoculation order for government and state-owned enterprise employees and their family members.

These measures seem to be paying off. The NHC’s tracker of daily vaccinations has seen its nationwide jabs curve tick up and up, from fewer than 100 million doses at the end of March to hit the 500 million mark last week. Chinese CDC’s Gao told Xinhua that the 40% goal could be hit if all Communist Party members, government and SOE employees, medical workers, teachers and college students could take the lead and roll up their sleeves. 

In Beijing, close to 60% of its 21.89 million residents have been fully vaccinated as of this week, and the corresponding figure in Shanghai is 25%. 

More are snapping up vaccination slots in Guangzhou and Shenzhen amid the two cities’ ongoing outbreaks. Photo: Weibo via Guangzhou Daily

With sporadic outbreaks hitting Guangzhou and Shenzhen since last week, China’s third- and fourth-most-populous cities have brought out huge crowds at vaccination centers as reports about growing clusters and rumors about jabs shortages give the cities’ sluggish vaccine take-up a shot in the arm.

Unlike previous flare-ups elsewhere when state media sought to hold back information about the risks, Xinhua, the People’s Daily and CCTV have all followed extensively how the virus crept back into Guangzhou and Shenzhen and started to spread at restaurants, dormitories and even within families, although the scale of the outbreaks appear to be manageable as fewer than 15 cases have been confirmed in both cities so far.

Some now wonder if the small number of infections warrants sweeping community lockdowns and mass testing and if the government has exaggerated the risks to scare more into getting jabs. Overnight testing of all residents in one district in Guangzhou has not yielded a single case but the city’s officials denied using scare tactics. 

Xinhua noted in an op-ed that media should be more forthcoming about occasional resurgences of Covid, which would not be eradicated unless more people get jabs, and that an all-out mobilization would always be justified to tackle contingencies even if some say risks could be overblown.  

The small outbreak in Guangzhou, now appearing to be under control, has turned out hordes at clinics, hospitals and community centers as slots for vaccination are being snapped up in what local media call “panic booking.”

Guangzhou’s total inoculations shot from about 7 million doses before the outbreak to hit 11 million on Wednesday, according to the city’s Health Bureau. 

Read more: