GT investigates: The mass vaccination countdown

By GT staff reporters, Published: 2020/12/22 22:00:00

Editor's Note:

As novel coronavirus epidemic is raging, the world is anxiously awaiting a vaccine for the infectious disease that has so far cost nearly 1.7 million lives. Have we already seen the light at the end of tunnel? China has delivered five vaccine candidates into phase III clinical trials and vaccinated more than 1 million people under emergency use regulations since July. A mass vaccination plan for 50 million people has also been revealed to prevent reoccurrence of last Spring Festival’s nightmare. The US, UK and Russia have also kicked off emergency vaccination programs. More countries and regions are following.

The research and development process for a new vaccine usually takes at least a decade. But the deadly pandemic pushed the world to shorten the process to less than one year, which apparently increases the public’s worries over the products’ safety and efficacy. Can people accept such a hastily developed vaccine? Continue reading and let the evidence speak for itself.

This is the sixth in a series of in-depth articles the Global Times has published as the year draws to a close. Previous reports probed the possibility that Wuhan's outbreak was caused by imported cold-chain products, delved into China's stricter management of imported frozen products, charted Wuhan's reemergence from the epidemic one year on, took stock of the different patterns adopted by China and Western countries in fighting the virus, and reviewed the first 40-day response in Wuhan since the virus was detected.

Quality inspectors on Sinovac vaccine production lines monitor the quality and efficiency of vaccine packaging on Sunday. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Wuhan is not only the place where COVID-19 infections were first reported in China, but also where the country’s COVID-19 vaccine was first delivered into clinical trials as well as the place where the country’s first inactivated vaccine was developed.

It may also be the place where the residents are most looking forward to the vaccine.

“If everyone gets vaccinated, it will help to prevent and control the epidemic,” one local resident surnamed Xu told the Global Times.

Asked when she would like to get a vaccine, she replied: “As soon as possible.”

“Nobody wants the epidemic to come back,” she said.

Xu’s wish may become reality soon as the country on Saturday unveiled a two-step mass vaccination plan aiming to establish a protection chain of herd immunity through active immunization, according to national health officials.

China currently has five COVID-19 vaccines in phase III of clinical trials.

According to a document circulating online alleged to be the records of a training session of the national disease prevention and control system on Tuesday, if things continue to progress well, China’s inactivated vaccines are expected to be conditionally approved for market by the year-end or early next year, with formal market approval as early as April.

The document said that China would finish vaccinating 50 million people before the 2021 Spring Festival that will fall on February 12 – with the first doses by January and the second by February 5.

A Bloomberg report on Friday said the initial vaccine target is an “ambitious effort” as it is equivalent to inoculating the entire population of South Korea in less than two months.

Quality inspectors on Sinovac vaccine production lines use digital technology platforms to monitor the quality and efficiency of vaccine packaging on Sunday. Photos: Li Hao/GT
No severe side effect

China delivered its first COVID-19 candidate, a recombinant adenovirus vaccine jointly developed by CanSino Biologics and a team led by Chinese military infectious disease expert Chen Wei, into clinical trials on March 16 in Wuhan – the same day the first doses of a Moderna vaccine were administered to four volunteers in its clinical trials bypassing tests on animals.

As of November, the CanSino vaccine has entered phase III clinical trials in Russia, Pakistan and Mexico. A total of 40,000 volunteers are expected to participate in the vaccine’s international clinical trials.

The country’s first inactivated vaccine was also created in Wuhan by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products under the China National Biotec Group (CNBG), which is affiliated with the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm).

The Global Times learned from CNBG that as of December, phase III clinical trials on the company’s two inactivated vaccines have been carried out in about 10 countries involving more than 50,000 volunteers of about 125 nationalities.

While the US and UK authorized emergency vaccine use earlier this month on high-risk populations, China approved emergency use of three vaccine candidates developed by CNBG and another leading vaccine producer Sinovac Life Sciences Co. (Sinovac) as early as July.

The three inactivated vaccine candidates have been administered for emergency use in 13 provinces.

Zheng Zhongwei, director of the Development Center for Medical Science and Technology of the National Health Commission (NHC), said at the Saturday press conference for the vaccination plan that since July, more than 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered to high-risk groups, with no severe adverse reactions being reported.

More than 60,000 people travelled to high-risk regions abroad after being vaccinated and no severe infections have been reported, according to Zheng.

Liang Dafu, 27, an engineer with Shanghai Sunrise Polymer Co. Ltd., is optimistic that with the combination of biological protection through a vaccine, and the physical protection of mask wearing, good hygiene habits and social distancing, he should be safe even in coronavirus-hit areas.

Liang said that he was happy to be vaccinated earlier than others because he spent his university life in Wuhan where the outbreaks dealt a heavy blow to the city and its people.

“If it [vaccination] is something that I can do for Wuhan, I’m definitely willing.”

Liang was vaccinated with a CNBG COVID-19 vaccine on October 16 in Beijing and is now working in Malaysia on a project under the Belt and Road Initiative.

A student surnamed Xu from Shenyang, in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, told the Global Times that he got vaccinated before going to study in Sweden. “Since Sweden is not taking active prevention measures to control the epidemic, my family will feel more at ease after I was vaccinated,” Xu said.

The latest vaccination emergency use program in Shanghai has extended to journalists, following the previous inoculation of frontline groups covering airport staff, border and porter personnel, cold-chain industry workers, public health medical staff and the people involving in the Third China International Import Expo, an official from the Shanghai Health Commission told the Global Times.

“Since it’s still in the clinical trial stage, the emergency vaccination program is conducted strictly by the regulations, and Shanghai will not release too much information on it, just like other provinces and regions,” the official said, adding “We hope the general public will participate in the inoculation once the vaccines officially enter the market.”

Residents wait to be vaccinated at Jiangdong community hospital in Yiwu, Zhejiang Province. Photo: Yang Hui/GT
Moving amid controversy

A CNBG vaccine has recently been approved in the UAE and Bahrain with 86 percent efficacy.

But some in the West have cast doubt on China’s vaccines over their safety and efficacy since the beginning.

After side effects from vaccines injected in the US and UK continue to be reported, doubts and worries over China’s vaccines have emerged given the lack of official phase III clinical trial data.

Jiao Yahui, an official with the NHC, said at the Saturday press conference that the side effects of China’s vaccines are different from foreign vaccines. Normal side effects of Chinese vaccines are headaches, fever, irritation in the inoculation part, cough, lack of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea.

“There are no severe side effects from the Chinese vaccines,” Jiao noted.

Chinese health authorities have been preparing and training employees to deal with side effects. Hospitals will send emergency responders and ambulances to vaccination sites and people will be required to remain on site for 30 minutes after vaccination as side effects usually occur during this period, Jiao said.

“Having the COVID-19 vaccination in Beijing before going to the UK is the most wise and correct decision I made this year,” Amy, a Chinese student in London told the Global Times, adding that the decision has had a lasting impact on her stay in the UK, biologically, psychologically and physically.

Amy decided to take offline courses in London instead of online courses in Beijing in September, so she began to inquire about vaccination. She decided to get a CNBG vaccine after observed that nothing severe had happened after people started being vaccinated.

“Since I made the decision a bit late, I had to take the two doses of vaccine together. Usually, there should be a 28-day interval. Maybe the antibodies will be halved and the adverse reaction will be stronger, but that was my only option, as the professional told me that ‘an interval of several days if not 28 days is the same as no interval.’ I felt okay after having the two doses together except I felt thirsty and sleepy like some others,” Amy said.

A student surnamed Zhang from East China’s Fujian Province was also vaccinated before going to the UK for study. He told the Global Times that none of his classmates who were vaccinated had any incidence of serious side effects. “I’m confident about the Chinese vaccine,” Zhang said.

Tunc Akkoç, Chairman of the Turkish Aydinlik Newspaper, the oldest newspaper in Turkey, also expressed confidence in Chinese vaccines.

“In Turkey, people rely more on Chinese vaccines. Because the vaccine supplied from China has been produced in the same way as the vaccines made since our childhood. [There were] 12,450 in this vaccine phase III clinical studies conducted in Turkey… On the other hand, because anti-Americanism in Turkey is very strong, people have low interests in the US vaccine. In addition, the bad performance of the US during the pandemic shook people's trust in the US once again,” Akkoç told the Global Times.

Mahnoor is a Pakistani girl who took part in the phase III clinical trials of the Chinese developed CanSino Biologics vaccine held in her country in November together with her sister.

She told the Global Times that the procedure to get the vaccine was “smooth.”There were Chinese doctors who managed the whole procedure at the site and some Pakistani doctors explained to local people what the vaccine is for and what would happen after they received it.

They also received calls from the hospital every week after vaccination to check on whether they developed fever or other related symptoms. Mahnoor’s sister developed a fever on the first night and she vomited the next day and nothing further happened after that.

Mahnoor said that she feels pretty safe now. “I used to be very paranoid and scared and constantly sanitizing everything around me. I feel very safe now when I go out,” she said.

“I believe 100 percent more in Chinese capabilities than I do of the West’s, 100 percent. There was no doubt that if I was going to participate in the trials it had to be a Chinese company. I think 90 percent of the reason why I got vaccinated in the first place was because it was a Chinese company. I would not have done such a thing if it had been some other company,” Mahnoor said.

Mahnoor said that there was a certain degree of misinformation about vaccines not only developed in China, but also Western-made ones in Pakistan and she thought the government should do more to give adequate explanations to the public regarding vaccines.

Residents wait to be vaccinated at Jiangdong community hospital in Yiwu, Zhejiang Province. Photo: Yang Hui/GT
Silver lining

Nearly two months have passed since Yiwu in East China’s Zhejiang Province initiated its emergency injections of a COVID-19 vaccine produced by Sinovac in mid-October.

Over the period, the clinic in the Jiangdong community of Yiwu, the only injection site in the city which has become the focus of media reports due to it being a pioneer in offering COVID-19 vaccines to the emergency needs of non-specific personnel from across the nation.

It was noteworthy that the clinic had tightened its management of the injection hall, requiring people to present their ID information and injection notices before entering the hall.

The No.1 injection room at the far end of the hall was designated for COVID-19 vaccine injections. More than 10 people were lining up and waiting outside the room for vaccination when a Global Times reporter arrived at the hall on the morning of December 4.

The process of the injection was quick. About 15 to 20 minutes later, those waiting all completed their vaccinations and sat outside the room for a 30-minute observation.

An official at the Yiwu Center for Disease Control and Prevention told the Global Times that the current COVID-19 vaccine injection only targets key groups such as medical staff, epidemic prevention staff, inspection and quarantine staff at ports, staffers at centralized quarantine venues and people planning to go abroad. There has been no foreign applicants for the vaccination so far at the moment.

People who want to get vaccinated can apply through the reservation platform of the Yiwu online overseas Chinese federation. At the only COVID-19 injection site in the Jiangdong community clinic, people have to present their identification cards and the notification of the injection they received and sign their consent before vaccination.

So far, the center has not received any reports of serious side effects from the vaccine.

In regards to whether and when the vaccination coverage will be expanded, the center will carry out the work according to provincial unified deployment.

At the moment, people who get the vaccination are mostly those who need to travel abroad, include those conducting business, study and work overseas.

According to the two-step national vaccination plan revealed on Saturday, the first to be inoculated include those working in cold storage food facilities, port quarantine, transportation, fresh food markets, medical workers, and those who are going to study or work overseas.

The elderly and those with existing health conditions will be next in line for a vaccination. The general population will be vaccinated as production capability gradually increases.

Chinese authorities previously revealed that the country’s COVID-19 vaccine production capacity will reach 610 million doses per year by the end of 2020.

CNBG said its production will reach 1 billion doses per year in 2021; three other producers, Sinovac, CanSino and Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical, were reported to be able to produce 300 million doses per year.

Reporting by Leng Shumei, Liu Xin in Wuhan, Feng Yu in Shanghai, Du Qiongfang and Yang Hui in Yiwu and Chi Jingyi in Beijing