China unlikely to meet 50 million Covid-19 vaccination target before CNY

Experts have attributed China's sputtering vaccine drive to a difficulty in ramping up vaccine production.
Experts have attributed China's sputtering vaccine drive to a difficulty in ramping up vaccine production.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China has some catching up to do in its goal of vaccinating 50 million people by the Chinese New Year holiday.

With the holiday coming up this week, tens of millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccine have yet to be administered.

Health authorities said last Thursday (Feb 4) that 31.236 million doses have been given out so far, but that figure is well short of the 100 million shots required to inoculate 50 million people under a two-dose regimen required by Chinese vaccines.

In mid-December last year, Beijing kick-started a plan to vaccinate key groups of people, including healthcare and government workers, and those in essential services like public transport.

State media had reported that the authorities planned to vaccinate 50 million people before the Spring Festival travel rush, and while the pace of vaccinations has been accelerating, it is increasingly clear this target will not be met.

By the middle of last month, about 10 million doses had been administered. This rose to about 24 million by Jan 31, before the latest figures were released on Thursday.

This puts China behind Western nations in its vaccine roll-out.

Beijing has administered just over two doses for every 100 people, behind three in the European Union, 10 in the United States, and almost 60 in Israel, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker.

Experts have attributed China's sputtering vaccine drive to a difficulty in ramping up vaccine production and hesitation among some Chinese to get vaccinated.

So far, only two Chinese-made vaccines have been approved for general public use in the country - the first by state-owned firm Sinopharm, with a second one by private vaccine maker Sinovac getting the green light last week.

Chinese media had previously reported that both companies are expected to have a combined vaccine output of about 1.6 billion doses by the end of this year - far short of what would be required to vaccinate the country's entire population of 1.4 billion.

Beijing's domestic needs also face pressure from the commitments it has made to provide developing countries with vaccines.

Sinopharm's chairman Yang Xiaoming said in an interview last month that the company was adding production lines in Wuhan and Beijing, but this was still not enough.

"In short, from the point of view of being sufficient, the supply of vaccines still cannot meet demand," said Mr Yang.

People waiting to get vaccinated at a vaccination centre in Beijing, on Jan 15, 2021. China's current vaccination campaign is voluntary. PHOTO: REUTERS

Another factor could be that some Chinese do not see an urgent need to get vaccinated, as the authorities have so far managed to keep infections under control within China, say experts.

"If people, even public health officials, believe they are at low risk of infection, then the incentives to get vaccinated will be reduced significantly," said Dr Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Data from YouGov shows that 61 per cent of Chinese people say they are willing to be vaccinated, compared with about 80 per cent in Britain.

The current vaccination campaign is voluntary, and Chinese leaders have not announced specific plans or targets for a wider roll-out.

China's slower pace of vaccinations could mean that Western countries would reach herd immunity before China and be able to resume normal economic activity and reopen their borders.

In an unusually critical editorial last month, the nationalist tabloid Global Times pointed to the possibility of China's advantage in controlling the epidemic being eroded, saying the vaccination drive was a "new test for China".

"China's vaccine production must speed up as soon as possible. We don't have time to celebrate our past achievements. We need to move forward and focus on the future," it said.