Coronavirus Outbreak Spreads Beyond Hebei as Sinovac Vaccine Data Disappoints

A new outbreak of  coronavirus in Hebei prompted the province to enter “wartime mode” in early January. The provincial capital Shijiazhuang, Xingtai, and the city of Langfang which borders Beijing are on lockdown, affecting 11 million people. Liaoning province, which abuts Hebei’s northern border, has also enacted lockdown measures, and Heilongjiang has also declared a state of emergency. Larger than the October outbreak in far western Kashgar, this becomes China’s largest in the past few months. At NPR, Emily Feng reported on the scope of the outbreak and the likely duration of the province’s lockdown measures:

Since Jan. 2, Hebei has reported more than 600 new positive cases, 544 of which were from the capital city of Shijiazhuang. To identify all potential patients, health officials have completed one round of mass testing of all the city’s residents, and a second one is being carried out this week.

The province also postponed its annual legislative meeting because of the flare-up. Liaoning province, which has had a small number of new virus cases this month, also postponed its meeting.

[…] Public health officials blame lax regulations governing movement in the countryside and frequent visits among friends and family for the Hebei outbreak. On Monday, nearly 20,000 residents from twelve rural villages in the Gaocheng district of Shijiazhuang were bussed to government quarantines.

The Hebei flare-up is the most severe outbreak China has seen in more than five months. Dr. Zhang Wenhong, a prominent doctor who directs the infectious diseases department at a Shanghai hospital, told Chinese media the outbreak would likely continue for another month before it is brought under control. [Source]

At The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers reported on local reactions to the outbreak and corresponding pandemic control measures:

After a taxi driver tested positive over the weekend in Beijing, the authorities tracked down 144 passengers for additional tests, according to The Global Times, a state tabloid. Now anyone getting in a taxi or car service in Beijing has to scan a QR code from their phone, allowing the government to quickly trace them.

[…] While the new restrictions have inconvenienced millions, there appears to be no significant public resistance to them.

“As far as I am concerned, I think measures like a lockdown for the whole city are actually quite good,” said Zhao Zhengyu, a university student in Beijing who is now confined to her parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, where she was visiting during winter break when the outbreak there erupted.

[…] “Chinese cities enforce a residential system — smaller ones have several hundred residents, big ones have tens of thousands — and by shutting the gates you can lock in tens of thousands of people,” Mr. Chen [Min, a writer and former newspaper editor who goes by the pen name Xiao Shu] said in a telephone interview. “Now whenever they run into this kind of problem, they’re sure to apply this method. That would be impossible in Western countries.” [Source]

The Hebei outbreak comes amid a vaccination drive that aims to have 50 million people inoculated by February’s Lunar New Year. The Chinese National Health Commission announced that over 10 million vaccines have already been administered as of January 13. However, a report from a Brazilian partner of Chinese vaccine manufacturer Sinovac indicated that the vaccine may not be as effective as previously thought, while still above the 50% efficacy rate used by most regulators as a benchmark for vaccine approval. After the publication of the Brazilian report, Chinese state media outlet Global Times published a graphic claiming the vaccine to be 100% effective in preventing severe and moderate infections. At Bloomberg, Jinshan Hong tracked the significant differences in the vaccine’s reported efficacy between countries:

Indonesia, which is moving the fastest on distributing the Sinovac shot to its population, said that a local trial showed an efficacy of 65% against COVID-19. But only 1,620 people in Indonesia took part in that trial — too small for meaningful data.

Turkey said last month that the same vaccine showed efficacy of 91.25% in its local trial, which was similarly too small to draw a sufficient conclusion.

In Brazil, where Sinovac’s biggest trial of more than 13,000 people is being conducted, dueling efficacy rates have been publicized. The company’s local trial partner, Butantan Institute, said last week that the vaccine was 78% effective in preventing mild cases of COVID-19 and 100% effective against severe and moderate infections.

Yet on Tuesday, Butantan said the overall rate, which also includes very mild cases that didn’t require medical help, is actually 50.38%. [Source]

Countries across the globe are counting on Chinese vaccines to inoculate their citizens. On January 11, before the publication of the Brazilian study, Indonesian health regulators approved the Sinovac vaccine for emergency use. Two days later, Turkey’s health regulatory ministry also approved the vaccine. In Hong Kong, skepticism about Sinovac’s vaccine is widespread: only 37% of adults are willing to get vaccinated, according to a recent study. At The New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee and Ernesto Londoño reported that epidemiologists are worried less about the vaccine’s efficacy than they are about Sinovac’s secrecy:

“It is not the best vaccine in the world,” [Natalia Pasternak, a microbiologist and the president of Instituto Questão de Ciência, a Brazilian nongovernmental organization,] said at the news conference during which the efficacy rate was disclosed. But she called it a “perfectly acceptable vaccine” that would lead to fewer patients developing serious cases or dying from the virus.

[…] Denise Garrett, a Brazilian-American epidemiologist and vaccine expert, said there was no reason to doubt CoronaVac’s safety, adding that the data presented so far suggested it would provide a satisfactory level of protection. But Dr. Garrett said the vague and sometimes misleading manner in which information about the vaccine had been made public could shake people’s confidence in its reliability and fuel the political battle over the vaccine.

“The lack of transparency really damages people’s trust,” she said. “They’ve just reinforced the narrative that this vaccine is not good.” [Source]


After months of delay, a WHO team investigating the virus’ origins will arrive in China on January 14. Research into the virus’ origins is highly sensitive for the Chinese government, and an AP investigation uncovered documents showing that all research on the virus’ origins must pass State Council approval before publication. The WHO team will fly directly to Wuhan from their staging base in Singapore. At The Guardian, Peter Beaumont interviewed Fabian Leendertz, a German epidemiologist on the WHO team, to understand what they are looking for and how they plan to find it:

Leendertz, like other colleagues involved in the mission, is clear, however, about one thing. “This is not about finding China guilty or saying ‘it started here, give or take three metres.’ This is about reducing the risk. And the media can help by avoiding Trump style finger-pointing. Our job is not political.

[…] “We know the closest relative viruses in bat species. But we still need to find the original reservoir, if there were intermediate hosts and even intermediate human hosts.”

[…] “I think the WHO philosophy is a good one. Start at the point which has the most solid description of human cases even if we do not know that the Wuhan wet market was the point where it first spilled over into humans or was simply the first mega spreading event.

[…] “You can’t do an investigation of any outbreak remotely,” he told the Guardian. “It’s just not really possible. I don’t want to give the impression we’ll be taking swabs or finding bats, but it is really important to see the locations and the settings, the wet market in Wuhan, the virology institute, to see the wildlife farms, the potential interface between the virus and humans. [Source]


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