However, five months later, Chinese authorities still don’t know when – or if – the vaccine will ever be approved, even though the new Omicron variant poses a new challenge to China’s zero Covid strategy – and its less domestic vaccines. effective.
Much remains unknown about the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, which carries an unusually high amount of mutations that scientists fear could potentially make it more transmissible and less sensitive to existing vaccines.
According to the World Health Organization, Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine was only 51% effective in preventing symptomatic disease against the original variant, while Sinopharm was at 79%. In comparison, the efficacy of mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna was as high as 95%.
The limited protection offered by Chinese vaccines is nowhere near enough to meet China’s ambitious goal of keeping Covid infection at zero within its borders. In recent months, authorities have used increasingly stringent measures to curb local epidemics – often at high economic cost and disrupting daily life.
But the infections continued to escalate. Last week, more than 130 cases were reported in the eastern province of Zhejiang, which is home to the country’s main manufacturing and export centers. And several local authorities across China have called on residents not to return home for the Lunar Chinese New Year to reduce the spread of the virus.
To improve declining public immunity, Chinese authorities have started rolling out booster shots, but again using inactivated vaccines.
But still, Zeng insisted that using the same technology to deliver booster shots would be safer and more widely accepted by the public.
So why is the Chinese government reluctant to approve Western mRNA vaccines?
Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said politics seemed to be the main consideration at stake.
“When China developed their own vaccines, they used it to show off China’s technological advancements. And now if you switch to an overseas-made vaccine, that’s admitting that you’re not so good than other countries in terms of technological capabilities, ”Huang said.
The Chinese government may also want to protect the interests of its domestic vaccine industry, according to Huang. “I’m sure they (the existing vaccine makers) would be very reluctant to bring foreigners into this huge market,” he said.
As Chinese regulators have suspended approval of the BioNTech vaccine, domestic companies have been given the green light to move forward with the development of their own mRNA vaccines.
Several other Chinese companies, including state-owned giant Sinopharm, are also developing mRNA vaccines, Huang said. Beijing will likely want to approve local mRNA vaccines before giving the green light to foreign vaccines, he added.
But there are signs that Chinese experts are hoping for more cooperation with their Western counterparts.
Over the weekend, Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s leading respiratory disease experts and government adviser, urged China to step up exchanges and cooperation in vaccine development with other countries.
“They have devoted years to research and managed to develop the world’s first mRNA (vaccine) in just a few months … We have to learn from their technology in this area,” he said.