After a spate of quality scandals in its coronavirus vaccine, China is again in the spotlight for making its unproven vaccine candidate widely available to demonstrate their safety and effectiveness.
As per media reports, even though China’s vaccine candidates have not formally been proved safe or effective, officials have been injecting them into thousands of people across the country, ostensibly under an emergency-use policy. Government officials and top pharmaceutical executives speak proudly of being inoculated.
Ethan Zhang, a resident of Beijing, took a flight to Yiwu in eastern China just to get a shot of the vaccine. He needed to get back to work. Work was in Ivory Coast, however, and since January the global coronavirus outbreak had stranded the 26-year-old translator in mainland China.
Then friends told Zhang of a way he could get his hands on what might be the world’s most coveted prize: a coronavirus vaccine. Zhang took a plane to Yiwu from Beijing that night. He stood in line for four hours outside a hospital. He paid $30. He got his shot.
And he expressed little worry that the substance that had been injected into his arm is still in the testing phase, an attitude that is stirring worry among global health experts.
“I feel more relieved now that I have protection,” Zhang said. “Since they’ve started using it on some people on an emergency-use basis, it shows that there’s a certain guarantee.”
The campaign has succeeded perhaps too well. Yiwu’s 500 doses were consumed within hours.
Other cities are limiting doses or asking people to show proof that they are traveling. The overwhelming demand has inspired a cottage industry of scalpers —the people who usually score the newest iPhones or hot railway tickets — charging as much as $1,500 for an appointment.
Those users could be taking big risks. People who have taken ineffective vaccines might believe they are safe and engage in risky behavior. They can be barred from taking another, better vaccine because they have already been injected. In a few cases in the past, unproven vaccines have caused health risks.
“These kinds of risks have not been clearly revealed,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on health care in China.
Any reports of deaths or illness could reignite mistrust in vaccines. China spent years vowing to clean up its vaccine industry after scandals.
“We risk losing confidence in people if indeed adverse effects occur,” said Kristine Macartney, director of the National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance in Sydney, Australia.
Apparently, China has made three of its four candidates in late-stage human testing, called Phase 3 trials, available to tens of thousands of employees at state-owned businesses, government officials and company executives since July.
Once Phase 3 trials are complete, the companies would submit results to the regulators of the countries that they want to sell their vaccines in. The authorities would review and assess them for approval.
Local governments have indicated that they plan to make the current vaccines available to more people. Beijing says it is keeping tabs on those who have been given the vaccines but has not disclosed any details.
Chinese officials have defended making vaccine candidates available. Zheng Zhongwei, a top official at China’s National Health Commission, said last month that the move was a “very necessary means of protecting peoples’ lives and health,” given outbreaks abroad.
Last week, Sinopharm’s chairman, Liu Jingzhen, announced that some 100,000 people have taken the company’s vaccine and none have shown any adverse reactions so far. He said that 56,000 of them had traveled abroad after taking the vaccine and none had been infected.
China’s drive has taken nationalistic overtones, with many celebrating the fact that the country has candidates in late-stage trials.
Wang Mingtao, a 43-year-old employee in a gold mine company in Ghana, posted a video on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, of people lining up to get the vaccine at the Beijing headquarters of Sinopharm, the state-owned Chinese drugmaker, with the slogan: “My country is powerful.”
Wang, who traveled to Beijing from the northern city of Xian, said he was not worried about taking an experimental vaccine. He paid $150 for the vaccine, made by a Sinopharm subsidiary, the Beijing Institute of Biological Products.
The doses are not always being administered the way they should. On September 26, Wang received two shots, one on each arm. The two doses are meant to be given 14 or 28 days apart. Wang said he was in a rush to travel and did not want to come back to Beijing.
“The country says this vaccine is OK,” he said, “so I think it is better to just take it.”