After Disappointing Sinovac Trial, Beijing Snipes at Western Vaccines

A week after stage three trial data from Brazil revealed lower-than-expected efficacy numbers for one of China’s main coronavirus vaccines, Beijing’s spokespersons and several reputable Chinese experts have doubled down on a new tactic to promote their vaccine: sniping at competitors. From accusing Western media of covering up deaths associated with the Pfizer vaccine to doubling down on conspiracy theories that the virus came from a U.S. military lab, media and official representatives have been fanning the flames of the kind of “vaccine nationalism” it once echoed warnings to avoid. The Washington Post’s Gerry Shih reported on comments from multiple sources casting doubt on vaccines produced in the U.S., including several from highly respected Chinese scientists:

[…] After Chinese officials and researchers spent months telling the public that China’s vaccines would win the global development race, [Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations] added, “there’s now a gap between expectation and reality that needed to be addressed, so you see this effort to disparage Western vaccines.”

[…] The nationalist Global Times newspaper ran stories that seized on the deaths of 23 elderly ­Norwegians who had taken the ­Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and quoted Chinese experts who urged countries from Norway to Australia to halt its use.

[…] George Gao, head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recently pondered publicly whether the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines could cause cancer. Zhong Nanshan, who is considered a ­national hero for his work on the SARS and covid-19 outbreaks and sometimes speaks on behalf of the government, dismissed ­Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s clinical trials as “very insufficient” in November. China’s vaccines, Zhong added, “are developed with rigor.”

Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who researches China’s health system, said that he was surprised a prominent health official like Gao would cast doubt on U.S. vaccines but that it was not clear whether such comments represented a concerted government strategy. Chinese factories, after all, have been contracted to produce millions of doses of ­Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, and it’s still possible that China could buy the vaccine to inoculate elderly citizens because the Chinese vaccines have not been tested on people over 59, he said. [Source]

This week, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying repeated a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus may have come from a U.S.-military affiliated lab in her January 18 press conference. As The Guardian’s Helen Davidson reported, the comments came in response to claims from the outgoing Trump administration of new evidence that the virus was made in a Chinese lab:

Hua accused the US of spreading “conspiracy theories and lies” as part of the “last-day madness of Mr Liar”, apparently referring to either Donald Trump or his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

“I’d like to stress that if the United States truly respects facts, it should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues like its 200-plus overseas bio-labs, invite WHO experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States, and respond to the concerns from the international community with real actions,” said Hua.

On the microblogging platform Weibo, the Chinese hashtag for “biological laboratory in US Fort Detrick” has been viewed more than 900m times, with comments latching on to the conspiracy theory that the US could be the source.

“The origin of coronavirus – American virus!” said one commenter. Another said: “Apologise to the bats!” [Source]

Allowing “Fort Detrick” to go viral on Chinese social media suggests the tactic of casting doubt on foreign vaccines has won some degree of approval from Chinese authorities.

This is not the first time that Beijing has fanned nationalist rhetoric regarding Western vaccines. As early as March 2020, theories alleging that the United States was the true origin of the coronavirus were allowed to flourish on Chinese social media. In November, People’s Daily reported in a Facebook post that “all available evidence” suggested the coronavirus “did not start in central China’s Wuhan.”

But Beijing’s challenge is not only to secure the confidence of its domestic population–who have already expressed record high willingness to take a Chinese-made vaccines–but to win the trust of potential overseas recipients of its vaccines as well. A recently published public opinion poll by British market research from YouGov measured confidence in vaccines made in different countries. Among respondents polled from 17 different regions, only China and Mexico had a net positive number of people who felt comfortable taking a vaccine made in China. Meanwhile, respondents reported feeling most comfortable receiving vaccines produced in Germany, Canada, or the U.K.

Ultimately, most people likely won’t get a say in which vaccine they receive, even though some governments have delayed approval of the Sinovac vaccine in light of the disappointing results. By most indications, demand for China’s vaccines remain steadfast. Financial Times’ Christian Shepherd and Max Seddon reported that foreign appetites have allowed China’s two largest manufacturers to secure deals with over a dozen countries:

Chinese and Russian manufacturers are seeing growing appetite from foreign buyers for their Covid-19 vaccines as the international scramble for jabs intensifies, despite lingering concerns over incomplete trial data and the rigour of domestic approval processes.

Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology has agreed to sell its Sputnik V vaccine to countries including Algeria, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, while the two leading Chinese manufacturers, Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech, have signed deals with more than a dozen countries including Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Philippines, Indonesia and Hungary. [Source]

In Southeast Asia, governments have also readily embraced China-developed vaccines. Last week, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo appeared on livestream receiving his shot of the Sinovac vaccine. The Philippines has also approved Sinovac trials, accepting half-a-million donated doses.

China is a member of the COVAX initiative–a WHO led program to ensure that every country has access to coronavirus vaccines–while the U.S., for the moment, is not. Analysts have previously written about how China’s participation in the initiative could burnish its reputation against the  negative views of China that have deepened during the pandemic. This week, Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken said in his confirmation hearing that the Biden administration would bring the U.S. into the initiative.

Meanwhile, The Economist reported on comments from one expert on who is less worried over the disappointing rates recorded in the Brazil trial:

The Brazilian trial is the largest, and probably the best run, of the bunch. It involved more that 10,000 volunteers who were health-care workers. Maurício Nogueira, a professor of virology at a state medical school in São Paulo, who is one of the principal investigators involved in this trial, points out that 50% is a conservative estimate of the vaccine’s efficacy. He offers three reasons.

One is that, because of the trial participants’ professions, they were more frequently exposed to high concentrations of virus than was the average Brazilian. A second is that health-care workers are more likely than others to notice that they have a symptom of covid-19. The third is that the trial used a particularly sensitive definition of what constituted a potential case of the disease that should therefore be put forward for testing. This was that participants should be tested after reporting only one symptom, rather than three, as demanded by some other trials. The trial’s organisers say that if these “very mild” cases of covid-19 are ignored, and only “mild”, “severe” and “fatal” cases considered, then the vaccine’s efficacy reaches 78%.

This sort of after-the-fact tinkering is frowned on by statisticians. Brazil’s medical regulator has nevertheless decided that, though Sinovac’s vaccine may not be the best in the world, it is still useful. The country will now roll out millions of doses under an emergency authorisation. [Source]

Also undermining public confidence in Chinese vaccines is the industry’s long history of corruption and quality scandals. But, The Economist reported that experts from the WHO who are currently in China to study the origins of the coronavirus will additionally assess whether Sinovac and Sinopharm’s manufacturing facilities meet international standards, which could serve to assuage public fears.


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