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Coronavirus Chaos

China: A Coronavirus Vaccine Superpower?

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Image: Creative Commons.

During the past couple of months of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, China has made headlines with its recently approved vaccines, some of which are made by Sinopharm and Sinovac.

The companies behind them are expected to manufacture hundreds of millions of doses in the coming twelve months as the world readies to make headway to finally end the yearlong pandemic. Chinese government officials are even more optimistic, saying they have a capacity of one billion doses for this year.

Moreover, poorer countries around the globe are increasingly relying on China to fill their vaccine needs as richer countries have already scooped up the vast majority of vaccines developed in Western nations. In order to hit the ambitious goal of 70 percent vaccination rate, the world needs roughly ten billion doses.

According to the World Health Organization, there are more than two hundred vaccines under development worldwide, and among them, about sixty have entered clinical trials. And of those, six are from China.

So, this begs the question: How did China become what looks like the world’s biggest vaccine maker and is now poised to vaccinate a huge chunk of the planet against COVID-19?

China, A Vaccine Superpower? Not So Fast. 

It appears that it all comes down to a speedy regulatory process that answers to the government and the continued reliance on an older vaccine technology—thus no need for extra time and investments into research and development.

Since several of China’s vaccines have entered late-stage trials and are approved relatively quickly, the international community has often stated its doubts about the effectiveness and safety of the shots. For example, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that Brazilians shouldn’t be used as “guinea pigs.”

Recently, the coronavirus vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech was found to be 50.4 percent effective in a late-stage Brazilian trial—falling far below the 78 percent level that was initially announced. While the percentage barely met the 50-percent threshold required for regulatory approval, the finding has only raised more concerns about the veracity of vaccine data put forth by Chinese companies.

The state-run Butantan Institute also stated that Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine was nearly 80 percent effective among volunteers with mild to severe COVID-19 infections, but that plunged by twenty-eight percentage points when including “very mild” cases that didn’t require medical assistance or hospitalization.

“Scientists have been urging transparency in data reporting for all vaccine trials, so we would hope that these data are made available publicly prior to the broad launch of any vaccine,” said Dr. Pavitra Roychoudhury, instructor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington.

As for the vaccine’s technology, it is unlike what leading Western competitors are tapping into. China’s vaccine shot relies on a long-tested technology that uses a killed virus to deliver the vaccine.

The shots developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, for example, tap into newer, less-proven technology that targets the virus’ spike protein using RNA. It is worth noting that some industry practitioners do say that vaccines that use inactivated viruses may potentially be safer than the newer mRNA vaccines.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

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