Covid-19: China’s plan to show off its vaccine backfires

China wanted to showcase its scientific prowess and deliver a geopolitical win with its coronavirus vaccine. However, that plan is facing severe backlash in some places.
Officials in Brazil and Turkey have complained that Chinese companies have been slow to ship the doses and ingredients.
A few reports also suggest that China’s vaccines, while considered effective, cannot stop the virus as well as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna, the American drugmakers.
In the Philippines, some lawmakers have criticized the government’s decision to buy a vaccine made by a Chinese company, Sinovac.
Officials in Malaysia and Singapore, which ordered doses from Sinovac, have had to reassure their citizens that they would approve a vaccine only if it had been proved safe and effective.
“Right now, I would not take any Chinese vaccine, because there’s insufficient data,” said Bilahari Kausikan, an influential former official at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
At least 24 countries signed deals with the Chinese vaccine companies because they offered access when richer nations had claimed most of the doses made by Pfizer and Moderna. However, the delays in getting the Chinese vaccines and the fact that the vaccines are less effective mean that those countries may take longer to vanquish the virus.
Beijing officials who had hoped the vaccines would burnish China’s global reputation are now on the defensive.
State media has started a misinformation campaign against the American vaccines, questioning the safety of the Pfizer and Moderna shots and promoting the Chinese vaccines as a better alternative. It has also distributed online videos that have been shared by the anti-vaccine movement in the United States.
Liu Xin, an anchor with CGTN, the state broadcaster, asked on Twitter why the foreign media had failed to “follow up” on the deaths of people in Germany who had taken one vaccine — though scientists have said the people were already seriously ill.
George Gao, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has questioned the safety of the American vaccines because their developers used new techniques rather than the traditional method embraced by Chinese makers.
China had hoped its vaccines would prove it had become a scientific and diplomatic powerhouse. It remains on a par with the United States in the number of vaccines approved for emergency use or in late-stage trials.
Sinopharm, a state-owned vaccine maker, and Sinovac have said they can produce up to a combined two billion doses this year, making them essential to the global fight against the coronavirus.
Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, their doses can be kept at refrigerated temperatures and are more easily transported, making them appealing to the developing world. They have been doled out as aid to countries like Pakistan and the Philippines.
However, many people have memories of China’s vaccine scandals. Several governments remain angry about Beijing’s lack of openness about the virus in the early days of the pandemic. Its efforts at the start of last year to distribute masks and protective equipment to the West came under fire amid reports of shoddy quality and the demands by Chinese officials for public thanks.
The delays in shipments to places like Brazil and Turkey have been the latest hitch.
In Turkey, the government initially promised that 10 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine would arrive in December. Only three million did in early January, according to Fahrettin Koca, Turkey’s health minister. The remaining doses finally arrived on January 25.
In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry cited its needs at home, where the coronavirus has re-emerged.
“Currently, China’s domestic vaccine demand is huge,” it said. “While meeting domestic demand, we are overcoming difficulties, thinking and trying ways to develop international vaccine cooperation with other countries, especially developing countries in different ways, and providing support and assistance according to their needs and within our capacity.”
Countries like Turkey and Brazil are rolling out their immunization programs with a Sinovac vaccine because Western companies cannot deliver as quickly. But Brazil’s efforts have been delayed as well. Eduardo Pazuello, the country’s health minister, said China was not acting fast enough with the documents needed to export raw materials to Brazil.
Other vaccines are beginning to fill the gap. Brazil’s Health Ministry announced that a previously delayed shipment of two million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine would arrive from India.
The world was also caught off guard by the disclosure that the Sinovac vaccine may not be as effective as previously thought. Earlier, officials in Turkey said trials there showed the vaccine had a 91 percent efficacy rate. In Indonesia, it was 68 percent. In Brazil, researchers initially said its efficacy was 78 percent.
On January 12, scientists said it had an efficacy rate of just over 50 percent, once people who experienced mild symptoms were included.
In a news conference last week, Sinovac’s chief executive officer, Yin Weidong, reiterated that the vaccine was 100 percent effective in preventing severe cases. He said the lower efficacy rate was a result of the trial’s focus on health care workers, who had a higher propensity of contracting Covid-19 than the general population.
To be sure, the Chinese vaccines have a big appeal to many countries. More than 40 countries have expressed an interest in importing Chinese vaccines, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. Several world leaders, including President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, have gotten a Sinovac vaccine.
But the spotty and inconsistent disclosures about the vaccines remain a problem. Sinopharm has said a vaccine candidate made by its Beijing Institute of Biological Products arm has an efficacy rate of 79 percent, but it did not disclose crucial details.
In Hong Kong, a special administration region of China that has ordered 7.5 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine, officials have not received an application for emergency distribution nor any data from the Chinese company.
“Whether it is because they are not making enough or if they have no plans to send the vaccines to Hong Kong yet, I don’t know,” said Dr. Lau Chak Sing, who heads a Hong Kong government advisory panel on Covid-19 vaccines.
In the Philippines, data disclosure has also been an issue. Risa Hontiveros, an opposition lawmaker, said President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration “continues to cram their preference for Chinese-made vaccines down the public’s throat, without emergency use approval and with inconsistent data.”