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China Treats People Deemed Vulnerable With Experimental Coronavirus Vaccine


As we've been reporting, American drug companies are racing to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer announced encouraging early results this week. Meanwhile, in China, hundreds of thousands of people have already gotten shots of the vaccines being developed there. NPR China correspondents Emily Feng and John Ruwitch take a look at why China's pressing ahead and what's at stake.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: On a chilly morning earlier this November, hundreds of people line up and wait for their names to be called.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Some are from the state-owned China Railway Group and are waiting to get their second shot of an experimental coronavirus vaccine produced by Sinopharm, China's biggest state-owned vaccine-maker. Guo Peiyu is a China Railway construction worker about to be sent abroad for a project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, qualifying him for a vaccine.

GUO PEIYU: (Through interpreter) Don't worry. There is no problem at all. Lots of our colleagues had the shot very early, as early as July. They had no problems whatsoever.

FENG: For Guo, access to a coronavirus vaccine, albeit one without regulatory approval and which is still undergoing the last phase of human trials, is a perk that comes with a state job.

GUO: (Through interpreter) Your company is giving a guarantee of safety in exchange for sending you abroad. After all, if you don't have your health, who cares how much money you earn?

FENG: Of the hundreds of thousands now inoculated, 56,000 vaccinated people have already gone abroad.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: But deploying unproven vaccines carries huge risks. For one, China's COVID-19 vaccines target the disease.

JEROME KIM: The vaccination prevents bad outcomes from infection, but it may not prevent infection itself.

RUWITCH: That's Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, South Korea.

KIM: And that could mean that a person could still transmit the virus after they've been vaccinated.

RUWITCH: The worry is that vaccinations will give people who've had them a sense of invincibility, and that could actually help spread the virus. There may also be unexpected reactions to the unproven vaccines or late complications.

FENG: China justifies the experimental vaccines for what it calls emergency use, shot into the arms of people deemed vulnerable to COVID, such as frontline medical workers and critical service providers at home. China has four experimental vaccines now going through the last phase of human trials. Sinopharm and Sinovac are two of the major contenders, and they make the vaccines being used on an emergency basis. Zheng Zhongwei, a director at China's CDC, speaking in November, said this was a necessary measure.


ZHENG ZHONGWEI: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: The decision to approve emergency use came after rounds and rounds of strict debate and evaluation after relevant WHO regulations were fulfilled.

FENG: But Zheng did not specify how the emergency vaccines are being distributed. At the vaccination site in Beijing, NPR met a wide range of people who were lining up to get a job. They included dozens of state employees, such as white-collar bureaucrats and office workers with no plans to travel abroad and even a Peking duck cook at a state-owned restaurant chain.

RUWITCH: A Peking duck cook. It's inoculations like these that have some observers concerned. Jin Dong-Yan researches molecular virology at Hong Kong University.

JIN DONG-YAN: There is no emergency in China because there are basically zero confirmed cases over many months already in China.

RUWITCH: Rolling out vaccines without all the data is a gamble for China. Already, a string of quality scandals over the years has people inside the country and out skittish about made-in-China vaccines. If something goes wrong with these vaccines, it would be a PR disaster. Again, Hong Kong University's Jin.

JIN: If they choose to do this shortcut and they ruin the reputation, that will just make things worse, and no one dare to use a Chinese vaccine anymore.

RUWITCH: So why take the risk? Money might be part of it. Sinopharm and Sinovac are influential, and they can charge what they want for the drugs during this emergency use period. Once the vaccines win final approval, the government will set prices. And there's something else at play, says David Ho, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University.

DAVID HO: I think it's probably to lay claim to the fact that we're the first to develop and to apply widely a vaccine. I think an element of nationalism is at play.

RUWITCH: Ho advised China's government when SARS broke out 17 years ago. The scientific response then versus now is night and day, he says. China is neck and neck with other countries in the race to develop the first COVID vaccine.

HO: So I think this is their demonstration of their scientific prowess, and they're very proud of that.

FENG: Indeed, for state employees getting preferential access to the experimental vaccine, this unorthodox approach is a sign of China's strength - first in controlling the epidemic, then protecting its workers. Here's Cheng Litong, a construction worker waiting for his second shot.

CHENG LITONG: (Through interpreter) My arm was a little sore, but that's it. I need the vaccine to go abroad, and the pandemic is so bad outside of China. State workers already abroad are eager to get the vaccine as soon as they return to China.

FENG: Where there are almost no cases of the coronavirus. Now China seems willing to keep it that way at all costs.

SHAPIRO: NPR China correspondents Emily Feng and John Ruwitch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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