China has had success fighting the coronavirus, but vaccinations in the world’s most populous country have been slow
Shirley Shi has received three offers to get the COVID-19 vaccine – via her hometown, Beijing residential area, and office area – but the HR manager is in no rush.
“I want to look out for any adverse effects first,” said Shi, who, like many Chinese people, likes to wait and see.
Through aggressive bans and mass tests of millions, China has successfully battled the virus that first appeared on its soil in late 2019.
Vaccinating the world’s most populous country, however, is a different story.
China is still working to ramp up production of its four approved domestically-made vaccines and has not yet approved any overseas-made shots in a global race for boastful rights.
For Shi, the problem is not accessibility, but a lack of urgency.
“Given China’s control of the domestic epidemic and my lack of plans to go overseas in the short term, there is currently no need,” she said.
Chinese experts have signaled that vaccination rates could speed up soon.
Zhong Nanshan, a respected pulmonologist and a key national figure in the fight against COVID-19, recently said China plans to immunize 40 percent of its 1.4 billion people by June.
This would require a massive increase in the number of shocks administered in China, where only about 3.5 percent of the population are currently vaccinated.
China’s current vaccination rate is “very worrying,” said infectious disease specialist Zhang Wenhong
According to Our World in Data, a collaboration between Oxford University and a charity, this is way below the 32.99 bumps per 100 population in the UK and the 25.42 in the US.
“The sense of urgency in the West, where vaccination is no less than an expected trailblazer, is absent in China,” said Mathieu Duchatel, director of the Asia program at Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank.
The slower pace could pose a risk to China as herd immunity will be delayed.
There is no globally recognized standard for the percentage of a population that must be stung – or to develop the necessary antibodies through infection – for herd immunity to COVID-19 to set in.
In a November newspaper in the medical journal The Lancet, that percentage was estimated at 60 to 72 percent for a 100 percent effective vaccine, while Gao Fu, head of China’s Disease Control Agency, put 70 to 80 percent in comments this week for China .
China would have to administer 10 million doses a day for seven months to reach such thresholds, Chinese infectious disease specialist Zhang Wenhong recently said in a forum. Zhong Nanshan said only around 52.5 million doses had been administered by the end of February.
The current pace is “very worrying,” added Zhang.
In addition to speeding up production, China has also committed to shipping vaccines overseas to defuse foreign criticism of the virus’ initial spread from its shores.
Some are waiting to get vaccinated in China, where only 3.5 percent of the population are currently vaccinated
Chinese companies will export nearly 400 million doses, according to state media, and the government announced it will provide free vaccines to 53 countries.
The country is also setting up “regional vaccination centers” to make Chinese-made batches available overseas and launching a campaign to get shots at foreign Chinese, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters on Sunday.
China is caught between “both compulsory vaccination to achieve herd immunity … and demand related to its vaccine diplomacy,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health officer for the US Council on Foreign Relations.
Huang said delays in herd immunity could mean China is falling behind in reopening its borders – which are now largely closed to everyone but Chinese citizens – as other economies move forward.
This “could make China look bad,” he said.
In China, public acceptance of the vaccine can also be slowed down by trust issues in a country with a history of drug safety scandals.
Research firm Ipsos found in January that 85 percent of adults in China were willing to be poked, but it was unclear when they would.
At a clinic in Beijing, a doctor said all staff were offered jabs, but many declined until more data on the vaccine’s effectiveness was available.
China has pledged to ship vaccines overseas to defuse foreign criticism of the virus’ initial spread from its shores
Unlike their foreign competitors, Chinese manufacturers still have to publish detailed data.
China’s vaccinations began last year with key groups such as medical workers and government employees overseas. This was extended to other citizens, albeit mostly in the largest cities.
With its resources and proven ability to mobilize for mass efforts, China could catch up on vaccination rates as soon as supply rises.
Zhang Yutong, a dental clinic worker, was part of a steady influx of people who flocked to a clinic in Beijing after her employer arranged bumps.
She told AFP that almost two-thirds of her colleagues had also accepted the offer.
“The epidemic has become a part of life. It’s better to have antibodies,” she said.
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