Beijing is waging a fresh vaccine publicity campaign, this time deploying well-known Chinese medical experts in defense of the traditional, inactivated shots made by Chinese drugmakers and exported worldwide.
One respected expert is using international online seminars and World Health Organization (WHO) platforms to add extra assurance that the Chinese-made jabs by Sinopharm and Sinovac are still effective against the highly transmissable Delta variant of Covid-19.
Zhong Nanshan, China’s internationally renowned top pulmonologist, is the latest to serve as de facto spokesperson for Chinese-made vaccines and China’s broad Covid-19 containment strategies.
In July, Zhong told the WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, of which he is a senior member, that “real world” case data he had gleaned from previous outbreaks in southern China indicated Sinopharm and Sinovac’s vaccines were 63% effective overall in preventing infections from the Delta strain.
Zhong, 85, is the president of the National Respiratory Diseases Clinical Research Center in Guangzhou and the head of a Beijing-convened elite expert panel on Covid control. Its recommendation to seal off Wuhan, the ground zero of global pandemic, to contain the contagion’s spread was eventually adopted by Beijing in January 2020.
Public opinion polls by state media show the University of London-educated Zhong is among the most trusted medical specialists and public figures in China.
At the same time, doubts about the efficacy and immunogenicity of Chinese vaccines are spreading across the developing world, where the Delta and other strains of Covid have exposed weakness in the shots through “breakthrough” infections.
Chinese shots are cheaper and easier to store compared to the more advanced messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines developed and widely used in the West. They have also been more available as Western nations have hoarded shots for their own populations.
Reports abound in the West about fully vaccinated people in China and other countries coming down with the virus. Widely quoted data from multiple overseas trials and roll-outs of Chinese shots present a mixed picture, with Sinovac’s drug faring the worst in a previous assessment by Brazil’s Butantan Institute with an effectiveness result of 50%.
That particular trial was conducted before the Delta variant took hold worldwide. More recently, Singapore has announced that it does not consider people who have taken Sinovac shots as inoculated in its rollout’s accounting.
Thailand has shifted away from the drug’s use amid evidence of breakthrough infections among its medical workers. Indonesia has likewise reported a rash of infections among its frontline health workers who were fully inoculated with Sinovac.
Now, Beijing is tapping the country’s most authoritative voices such as Zhong to mollify the mounting skepticism, including at the WHO.
An excerpt of Zhong’s speech delivered to the WHO’s panel in July noted that his team had surveyed 153 confirmed Delta cases in Guangzhou between May and June.
Zhong said the study showed Chinese jabs had a 63% overall efficacy against the Delta strain and that both Sinopharm and Sinovac shots could “substantially reduce” the risk of infections requiring hospitalization, with a 77% protection performance against serious complications.
Zhong said all the patients in Guangzhou had been cured and discharged, with no new cases reported since June 18 and that no one had died throughout the city’s month-long Delta outbreak, which was ignited by imported cases. He attributed that to the mega-city’s universal inoculation drive using locally made shots before the outbreak.
Those Delta-related findings dovetail with remarks Zhong made in an interview last month with the Global People magazine, an affiliate publication of the state mouthpiece People’s Daily.
In his WHO panel speech, Zhong also cried foul over what he called the Western media’s “bias pandemic” when reporting on the Sinovac vaccine.
He said the vaccine had been thoroughly evaluated in final-stage human trials across Brazil, Turkey, Peru and Pakistan with efficacy rates ranging between 50% and 90%, but that international media outlets tended to focus on the low-end 50% figure from Brazil.
Zhong also hailed the “unrivaled safety” of Chinese shots.
“The Chinese government cannot control what foreign media say about the Chinese vaccines but with so many countries rolling out our shots to their people, there have not been widespread reports of severe side effects or anything worse. All vaccines must, first and foremost, be safe to use,” he said.
China’s National Health Commission (NHC) said last week that as of August 4 the country had donated or shipped 770 million doses to more than 100 countries, though without listing them. President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his vow to donate 2 billion doses by the end of the year in an August 5 letter to the International Forum on Covid-19 Vaccine Cooperation.
Zhong also told WHO panel members that Beijing had compiled a “playbook” of fast containment strategies for countries still firmly in the grip of the virus such as Colombia, South Africa and India.
That playbook includes techniques and tactics used to contain Guangzhou’s Delta outbreaks within a month. He said Beijing would be forthcoming in sharing its containment experience with the international community.
“Instant mass testing is always the key to tackling new outbreaks, and we had as many as 210 million tests within 21 days in Guangzhou, knowing that Delta is far more transmissible than Covid’s ancestral version,” he said.
“We also urge other countries to redefine the concept of ‘close contacts’ to expand contact tracing to cover anyone who has been to the same building, venue or facility used by a confirmed Delta patient to snap any hidden infection chains.
“I just can’t emphasize enough the importance of fast, nationwide vaccination in underwriting China’s and other countries’ long-term resistance and immunity to the virus. I have advised [China’s NHC] to set a new 80% full vaccination goal by the end of the year.
“If developing countries don’t have enough stockpiles of shots, can’t produce them on their own or don’t have access to Western drugs, they should consider Chinese vaccines as a good alternative, now that President Xi has renewed the commitment. They are better than nothing.”