China forges ahead in vaccination drive with 809m shots given

China's success in controlling the spread of the virus has also hampered its vaccine roll-out.
China's success in controlling the spread of the virus has also hampered its vaccine roll-out.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - When Mr Xie Xiaomin wanted to get vaccinated two weeks ago on May 29, he only had to trek 2km to the township hospital, where a vaccination centre had been specially set up for villages in the area.

"It's not far, many of us walked there. The government made it convenient for us to get vaccinated, especially the older villagers," said Mr Xie, 54, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Mayuan village near the city of Jinggangshan in Jiangxi province.

Before this, those who wanted to get vaccinated would have to travel over 40km to city hospitals in Jinggangshan.

The rural vaccination effort is one example of how China has been marshalling state and party resources to boost the country's vaccination rate - which has almost quadrupled since April.

Beijing has set a target for 40 per cent of the population to be fully vaccinated by the end of June, and more than 80 per cent of people to be inoculated by the end of the year.

Under a two-dose vaccination regimen, the 40 per cent target would require about 1.13 billion doses to be administered.

The National Health Commission (NHC) said on Wednesday (June 9) that 808.96 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered across the country.

At the end of May, that figure was 661.47 million doses - meaning about 18.43 million doses were administered daily in the past week.

This is up from just over 4.6 million doses daily at the end of April.

China is employing a "carrot-and-stick" approach to encourage people to get jabbed, with local officials giving away eggs and shopping vouchers to those who step forward.

In Mayuan, where Mr Xie lives, village party officials have been calling up villagers individually to encourage them to get jabbed.

But there is also a hard edge to these efforts. Some, like Mr Xie, did not really have a choice.

"I am in the tourism business so (the authorities) told me that if I didn't get vaccinated, I could lose my license to receive tourists," he said.

China's success in controlling the spread of the virus has also hampered its vaccine roll-out, with many Chinese saying they did not feel there was a need to get vaccinated.

But recent outbreaks of the virus in Liaoning province last month, and an ongoing spike of cases in Guangdong province have led some, such as Mr Xiao Jingyi, to decide to get vaccinated.

The 28-year-old, who works in a construction firm in the Inner Mongolian city of Chifeng, said he was initially worried about vaccine side effects, but changed his mind after the outbreak in nearby Liaoning.

"I feel like it's safer for me and the people around me after I got vaccinated," he said.

Guangdong province is battling an outbreak of the Delta strain of the virus, which was first detected in India.

Since May 21, the provincial capital of Guangzhou has reported 75 local infections, not including 16 asymptomatic cases.

One doctor from a community hospital in neighbouring Shenzhen city told The Straits Times that because of the outbreak, people were on "heightened alert and actively coming forward to get vaccinated".

But even as the pace of vaccination picks up, China faces several challenges.

Vaccination rates are much higher in cities than in urban areas, and could lead to an urban-rural vaccination divide.

For instance, the Chinese capital of Beijing has fully vaccinated over 76 per cent of its population as at the start of this week, the Beijing Daily reported on Tuesday.

Contrast this with landlocked Jiangxi province, which has a population of 45.18 million people, and has vaccinated only about a third of its people (15.56 million), according to data from the provincial government released last week.

But virologist Jin Dong-Yan said the biggest challenge China faces is the low efficacy rates of its vaccines compared with Western alternatives produced by Pfizer and Moderna, which have efficacy rates in excess of 90 per cent.

China has approved seven domestically developed vaccines.

Efficacy data is unavailable for all of them but four - two vaccines from Sinopharm, and jabs from CanSino and Sinovac. Their efficacy rates range from 50.7 to 79 per cent against symptomatic disease.

Professor Jin, who is from the University of Hong Kong, said low efficacy rates make it difficult to achieve herd immunity, meaning the virus would still be able to spread among vaccinated individuals.

"From the viewpoint of controlling the pandemic, it will mean that social distancing measures could never be relaxed," he said.

He pointed to countries like the Seychelles and Chile - which have reportedly vaccinated 70 per cent and 51.9 per cent of their populations respectively - relying largely on Chinese vaccines, which have been unable to stem the spread of the virus despite high vaccination rates.

On the other hand, Israel, which vaccinated close to 60 per cent of its population with the mRNA vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, has seen infection numbers plunge.

China's inactivated virus vaccines have advantages, said Prof Jin. "For example, you can use it in immunocompromised people, but for the general population, it is still much, much less effective than the mRNA vaccines."

Beijing has seemed to acknowledge that its vaccines were lagging behind in terms of efficacy. Director of the Chinese Centre of Disease Control (CDC) Gao Fu said in April that "current vaccines don't have very high protection rates".

He later walked back those comments, but his colleague Shao Yiming told Chinese media this week that the protection China's vaccines offer at the moment are aimed at "preventing symptomatic disease and not to prevent transmission" of the virus.

Some netizens have expressed their desire to get vaccinated by Pfizer and BioNTech's mRNA vaccine on social media platform Weibo.

For now, only domestically developed vaccines are available to the Chinese.

BioNTech and Chinese firm Fosun Pharma have set up a joint venture to manufacture the mRNA shot in China, although the shot has yet to be approved by the Chinese government.

Beijing office worker Nie Yanjie, who got her first dose of the Sinovac vaccine on Thursday, said: "For regular people like me, it's hard to evaluate whether foreign or domestic vaccines are better. It's better to just listen to the government," she said.


China's vaccines

1-Dose

CANSINO BIOLOGICS: A private firm based in Tianjin. The vaccine was developed jointly with the Chinese military.
Type of vaccine: Adenovirus vector 
Reported efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic disease: 65.28 per cent

2-Dose

SINOPHARM: A state-owned firm. It has developed two inactivated virus vaccines, one of which has been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for emergency use.
Type of vaccine: Inactivated virus 
Reported efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic disease: 79 per cent (WHO approved) and 72.51 per cent

SINOVAC: A private firm based in Beijing. Its inactivated virus vaccine also got WHO approval earlier this month.
Type of vaccine: Inactivated virus
Reported efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic disease: 51 per cent

SHENZHEN KANGTAI BIOLOGICAL PRODUCTS: A private firm based in Shenzhen. One of China's largest vaccine makers.
Type of vaccine: Inactivated virus 
Reported efficacy rate: Unknown

INSTITUTE OF MEDICAL BIOLOGY OF THE CHINESE ACADEMY OF MEDICAL SCIENCES: A government research institute based in Kunming. Its vaccine was approved just this week by Chinese regulators.
Type of vaccine: Inactivated virus 
Reported efficacy rate: Unknown

3-Dose

ANHUI ZHIFEI LONGCOM BIOPHARMACEUTICAL: A private vaccine maker. Chinese researchers are conducting a vaccine-mixing trial in Jiangsu province where participants are given a dose of the CanSino's and this vaccine.
Type of vaccine: Recombinant sub-unit 
Reported efficacy rate: Unknown