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China’s vaccine diplomacy rattled by safety questions

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China’s dreams of a global vaccine victory by distributing an anti-Covid vaccine to the maximum number of developing countries and rivalling the United States in vaccine research and business are on the verge of coming apart if allegations are proved true that one of the vaccines developed internally is unsafe.

On new year’s eve a few weeks ago, a Shanghai-based vaccine expert, Tao Lina, described the just approved Sinopharm vaccine as “most unsafe”. Since then, the Chinese government of President Xi Jinping has unleashed a global public relations exercise to dispel fears about the vaccine’s safety. According to latest reports, Chinese citizens themselves are a bit wary of the vaccine that has ended in a slow start to the vaccination campaign.

The Ming Pao newspaper of Hong Kong reported that he “uploaded a digital version of the vaccine’s instruction manual onto his Weibo page” and told the paper that he “counted the conditions listed in the ‘adverse reactions’ column” and found “that there were 73 local/systemic adverse reactions associated with the vaccine”. That clearly makes it unsafe, he claimed, sending shock waves across the world.

Tao has been working in the Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention (SCDC) since August, 2000 and is responsible for vaccine management. After his disclosure, his Weibo account was found deleted.

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Sinopharm’s scientific name is BBIBP-CorV. It is an “inactivated vaccine” produced by China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a subsidiary of China National Pharmaceutical Group Corporation (Sinopharm). The Chinese government officially approved it for general use even though the human trails were not completed. It became the first Covid vaccine to be approved with a 79.34 per cent efficacy in late-stage trials as claimed by the company.

The western scientific establishment claims that Sinopharm vaccine uses older technology and, therefore, cannot be completely reliable. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, a global monitor of health technology, said three technologies are being used at present to create anti-Covid vaccines. While the Americans are using the latest one, called “mRNA vaccines which use part of the virus’ genetic information to teach our immune system to produce certain anti-bodies”, Sinofarm of China used an older technology called “inactivated virus vaccines, which use a weakened form of disease virus to stimulate the body’s immune response”.

The old technology reportedly has drawbacks that include “the potential to cause disease in immuno-compromised individuals and the possibility of reversion to a virulent form”. The American center says “without more information, the risks and benefits of taking the Chinese vaccine remain unclear”.

Interestingly, the Center’s “Trusted Source” study in 2019 reported that the “most significant difference between the older vaccine technologies and mRNA vaccines is the need to keep drugs such as Pfizer’s vaccine at extremely low temperatures during storage and transport”. Which can only mean that Sinbopharm can be stored and transported at higher temperatures, but at the cost of certain drawbacks.
Sinopharm has consistently refused to provide any breakdown of the trial results so far. That has only raised more eyebrows, particularly after the Chinese vaccine expert’s revelations.

The New York Times, which conducted its own investigation, reported: “Sinopharm vaccine’s results show that it is less effective than others that have been approved in other countries. Still, the results are well above the 50 percent threshold that makes a vaccine effective in the eyes of the medical establishment. Two other coronavirus vaccines, made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, have been shown to have an efficacy rate of about 95 percent. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has received authorization in more than 40 countries. Moderna’s vaccine has been authorized in the United States, and other countries are evaluating its trial results. Russia has announced that its Sputnik V vaccine has an efficacy rate of 91 percent,” and has begun a mass vaccination campaign. The Chinese government is not giving second thoughts to the criticism of its vaccine. It has gone ahead with meeting its target of inoculating 50 million Chinese by February 23, which is the Chinese Lunar New Year when millions are expected to travel.

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The government is simultaneously entering into dozens of agreements with poor and developing countries to supply the vaccines. In fact, the Chinese vaccine developers visited several such countries, including Brazil, to test the efficacy of the vaccines.

As on date nearly 15 countries have agreements with China for getting early doses. The vaccines have already reached Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Brazil has received nearly 11 million doses. Indonesia and Turkey have got another Chinese vaccine, Sinovac.

But internally, the vaccination programme is said to be slow. Latest reports claim that just over 24 million doses have been given and these are just the first of the two doses required to be given. Some analysts are wondering why is the process slow considering the any-which-way record of the Chinese government in mass mobilisation of people.

If the Sinopharm vaccine is truly under-effective, it will have a drastic impact on the vaccination programme. Earlier reports from China said, according to the media, “around 60-72% of a country’s residents must be vaccinated for herd immunity”. But if the Chinese vaccine is not that effective, “the country will need to vaccinate nearly all 1.4 billion of its citizens for herd immunity”.

The real concern for President Xi’s government will be the pubic relations disaster such a situation would give rise to. The President is intent on winning the vaccine race to beat the United States in bio-technology. He is intent on washing off China’s bad reputation over the alleged cover-up in the early days of Covid by developing effective anti-dotes. He is equally intent on pushing his expansionist plans under the guise of the vaccine by reaching it to poor and developing countries and developing or improving relations with them at a time when the Americans and the Europeans are being accused of hoarding the vaccine and not making them available to other countries.

Such are the high political stakes for President Xi in the vaccine diplomacy he has launched despite the fact that his scientists refuse to make supporting data on vaccine trials publicly available for the results to be peer assessed.


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