Pressure for transparency on China's vaccine trial data

President Xi Jinping has promised that vaccines developed by China will be a global "public good".
President Xi Jinping has promised that vaccines developed by China will be a global "public good".PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Western politicians have faulted China for initial delays in providing information as the coronavirus spread around the world. Now, as Beijing develops a vaccine, the need for transparency is proving essential to win back trust.

American drugmaker Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech announced this week that its vaccine appears more than 90 per cent effective in stopping Covid-19 infections.

"As China continues to push its own vaccines through the final stage of clinical trial in the midst of Pfizer's announcement, the need for Beijing to address public perception about its vaccine safety issues is more pressing now than ever," said Ms Xiaoqing Lu Boynton, a consultant at Albright Stonebridge Group who focuses on health care and life sciences.

For China, the stakes in developing a successful vaccine are high after a year that saw the outbreak of the coronavirus - first detected in Wuhan - further roil relations with the United States, Europe, India and Australia. While Beijing quickly got the virus under control and sought to distribute aid to other countries, complaints followed about faulty materials and strings attached.

The race to develop a vaccine has since become a way for China to show the world its technological superiority as the Trump administration urges countries around the globe to avoid Chinese companies for 5G networks, computer chips and big infrastructure projects.

Distributing it widely would also help China regain some lost soft power: President Xi Jinping has promised vaccines developed by China will be a global "public good", and he joined a World Health Organisation-backed effort to inoculate everyone against Covid-19.

The "problem for me is global public good or China public good - it's two different notions," said Mr Nicolas Chapuis, the European Union's Ambassador to China. While he praised China's decision to join the WHO-backed vaccine programme, he said many questions remain on distribution, price and international certification.

"To be certified, samples have to be given," he said. "Samples have not been given."

China's setback in Brazil - which reversed its decision on Wednesday to allow clinical trials of a Chinese-developed Covid-19 vaccine to resume, two days after suspending them - combined with Pfizer's breakthrough "put China's vaccine diplomacy in jeopardy", said Assistant Professor Yongwook Ryu at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

"The issue is the lack of transparency," he said. "So the right thing for the Chinese government to do is to make its trial results and related information public, so that experts can scrutinise them."

China has already administered its vaccine, including the one from Sinovac Biotech, to hundreds of thousands of people under an expansive emergency use programme. But none of the Chinese front runners has published any preliminary data from phase three trials as Pfizer has done. Brazil's health regulator is sending a mission to China this month to inspect facilities of some companies involved in vaccine production.

In India, public anger with China is at the highest in recent memory following a deadly border stand-off. "Cooperation will be difficult given current levels of trust," said Mr Biren Nanda, a former Indian ambassador who spent a decade in China. "When not only India but even other nations can't seem to trust China with their work on our telecom systems and electronics, it would be a tall order to expect trust in a Chinese vaccine."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2020, with the headline 'Pressure for transparency on China's vaccine trial data'. Subscribe