China will provide its people with domestically-produced Covid booster shots instead of foreign ones, despite the fact that US-made mRNA vaccines have a proven higher protection rate against serious illness and morbidity.
The announcement pinpricks earlier speculation that Beijing was preparing to lift its ban on the use of foreign vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech and raises new dire questions about what will happen next after its recent abrupt lifting of “zero-Covid” lockdown and testing policies.
Highly infectious Omicron strains have reportedly resulted in a high death toll among the elderly, but Beijing has so far said it can manage the escalating health crisis while maintaining steady economic growth.
Beijing’s official comments on exclusive domestic vaccine use came after the United States proposed on Tuesday to donate Covid vaccines to China while saying viral outbreaks in the country threaten to hurt the global economy.
“We are the largest donor of Covid-19 vaccines around the world. We are prepared to continue to support countries around the world, including China, on this and other Covid-related health support,” Ned Price, a spokesperson of the US Department of State, said Tuesday. “This is profoundly in the interests of the rest of the world.”
Price said the United States’s Covid vaccines were safe and effective while the US had provided them to countries around the world regardless or in spite of any political disagreements.
“We don’t want to see death or disease spread anywhere,” he added. “Whenever the virus is spreading anywhere widely in an uncontrolled fashion, it has the potential for variants to emerge.”
Price declined to disclose the private discussions between the US and China on the matter.
Chinese columnists speculated their was a hidden US agenda behind the proposed donations, including gaining access to now-closed Chinese vaccine markets. Others wrote Washington sought to score a symbolic win vis-a-vis China in the two sides’ competing vaccine diplomacy drives.
Since China’s government announced a 10-point notice on December 7 calling on local authorities to avoid lockdowns, reduce PCR tests and allow Covid patients to quarantine at home rather than state-run facilities, many netizens have said their elderly relatives died at home because they could not be admitted to overcrowded hospitals.
The Ming Pao Daily, a Hong Kong newspaper, reported on Sunday that funeral service providers in Beijing were overrun by a sharp increase in demand. It claimed at least 2,700 people died at home in Beijing on December 17.
Asia Times could not independently confirm the figure. China’s official Covid death toll has shown only six cases since December 7.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a Seattle-based public health organization, forecasts that one million Covid patients in China would die in 2023 with one-third of the deaths projected to happen in the first quarter.
Asked by foreign journalists whether China would accept the US vaccine offer, Mao Ning, a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, said China would rely on local vaccines.
“Booster shots are being rolled out in China. Medicine and test reagents can generally meet demand,” Mao said. “We believe that with the solidarity and concerted efforts of the Chinese people, our economic and social undertakings will enter a new stage of steady and orderly growth.”
“We are ready to continue working with the international community to meet the Covid challenge, better protect people’s lives and health, revitalize world economic growth, and build a global community of health for all,” she said.
As of December 13, 90.4% of China’s 1.4 billion population had received two vaccine doses while 57.9% have received a booster shot, according to China’s National Administration of Disease Control and Prevention. Most people have been inoculated with the inactivated vaccines, meaning not mRNA, produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm.
On December 13, the Comprehensive Team for Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism for Covid-19 under the State Council recommended in a new guideline for people to use a different vaccine for their second booster shots.
It said those who had already received three doses of China’s inactivated vaccines should try a new one, such as CanSino Biologics’s Convidecia, Anhui Zhifei Longcom’s recombinant Covid vaccine (CHO Cell) and WestVac BioPharma’s recombinant Covid vaccine (Sf9 cell).
However, the statement did not comment on the effectiveness of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines against Omicron strains of the virus.
A Heilongjiang-based columnist on Wednesday published an article titled “The US will donate vaccines to China? Don’t be happy. It may have a hidden agenda.”
He said many US people did not get a booster shot of mRNA vaccines as they were worried about potential side effects as well as quality. He said Chinese people should think twice before receiving and taking American vaccines.
He also said it was ridiculous that the US donated just 80 vials, or 480 doses, of Pfizer vaccines to Trinidad and Tobago in June 2021. He also criticized the US for donating 3 million doses of Moderna vaccines to allegedly coax the Philippines into re-enforcing their Visiting Forces Agreement, a bilateral military pact that allows for US troops to station in the country on a rotational basis.
In June last year, the US Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago received negative comments on the Internet after tweeting that the US government had donated 80 vials of vaccines to the twin-island Caribbean nation, which has a 1.4 million population. Later, it said the total amount of donations would be 900,000 doses.
A Hebei-based columnist said it was no coincidence that the US proposed to donate its vaccines to China after many Western media outlets made forecasts that more than a million Chinese Covid patients would die in the current gathering outbreak.
He said the US only wanted to access China’s huge vaccine market and profit from the Chinese people.
Citing Singapore’s experience, Zhang Wenhong, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital, said China’s current epidemic wave would last between two and four months. He said Omicron was less pathogenic than the previous strains but could still prove fatal for elderly people and those with chronic diseases.
A Shanxi-based writer said he had once believed in medical experts, including Zhang, who said Omicron was similar to seasonal flu but was now doubtful after so many patients had died.
He said Chinese people should remain vigilant as no one knew whether new dangerous variants would emerge next year with the disease now spreading so widely and quickly.
Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3