In Depth

What China’s low jab efficacy means for the global vaccination effort

Senior official raises fear over effectiveness of vaccines in wide use across Asia and Africa

A warning from China’s most senior disease control official that the country’s vaccines offer only limited protection against coronavirus has raised fears that the global vaccination effort could be less effective than first hoped.

Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press conference on Saturday that the current vaccines “don't have very high rates of protection”. 

After what the BBC describes as a “rare admission of weakness” from within the highly secretive state, concern is growing that the vaccines, which are being widely used across Asia and Africa, may not effectively suppress the virus.

Vaccine efficacy

Gao said that China is considering mixing vaccines in an effort to “optimise” the effectiveness of the vaccines currently in use in China. He also suggested that altering the number of doses and the length of time between jabs could also boost efficacy rates.

His original comments were not reported in state-owned media, while in a later interview with the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) flagship paper, Gao appeared to row back, saying “protection rates of all vaccines in the world are sometimes high, and sometimes low.

“How to improve their efficacy is a question that needs to be considered by scientists around the world,” he told the paper, adding that the suggestion that China’s vaccines were not effective was a “complete misunderstanding” of his earlier comments.

China currently has five vaccines in use in its campaign: three inactivated-virus vaccines manufactured by Sinovac and Sinopharm, a one-shot vaccine from CanSino and a vaccine developed by Gao’s team and pharmaceutical company Anhui Zhifei Longcom.

Concerns have been raised about the efficacy of the China-developed vaccines before, with Sinovac’s CoronaVac, the most widely used of China’s vaccines, appearing to offer just 50.4% protection during late stage trials at the Butantan Institute in Brazil, the BBC reports.

While Sinovac’s “performance was better in Indonesia and Turkey”, preliminary trial results from Brazil showed that when two shots of the Sinovac vaccine were given less than three weeks apart, its effectiveness was 49.1%, “below the 50% threshold set by the World Health Organization”, Al Jazeera reports.

According to Oxford University tracking, China has administered 167.34 million Covid vaccines so far. All of the vaccines administered in China were developed locally, as Beijing has not authorised the use of any foreign-developed inoculations.

However, Gao’s warning about the vaccine’s efficacy has also caused concern outside China, as Beijing has also “struck deals to supply many of its allies and economic partners in the developing world”, The Washington Post says.

The Chinese government has distributed “hundred of millions of doses”, the paper adds, and has “boasted” that its jabs have been administered to world leaders in Indonesia, Pakistan and the UAE.

Global effort

China is “formally considering” options to change its vaccines to “solve the problem that the efficacy of the existing vaccines is not high”, Gao said during the press conference in Chengdu. And while Chinese media has moved to suppress the comments, “there have been signs that some countries remain skeptical” of the vaccines being delivered by China, The Washington Post says.

The UAE has openly experimented with administering three shots of the Sinopharm vaccine, as opposed to the two recommended by officials in Beijing, while Singapore is yet to begin the rollout of the Sinovac jab, which is instead being stockpiled.

China has been using the vaccine to increase its leverage over countries desperately scrambling for doses, with some countries “relying heavily on Chinese vaccines” in their inoculation campaigns, the BMJ says.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan are the biggest buyers of China’s vaccine in Asia, the BBC reports, while Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Columbia and Ecuador have also “ordered millions of shots”. Turkey and Ukraine have signed contracts for CoronaVac, but it is Africa where China’s vaccines are “particularly important”, the broadcaster adds.

Zimbabwe, Somalia, Djibouti, Benin and Tunisia are all known to have received vaccines from China, with Beijing so far donating more than 96 million doses of its vaccine to 39 countries across the continent, according to independent consultancy Bridge Consulting

As the world’s wealthier countries stockpile western-developed vaccines offering higher levels of protection, the CCP has “spent months touting Chinese vaccines as part of a soft power push”, The Washington Post says. “They have been in high demand” in lower-income nations, the paper adds, meaning poor efficacy rates could lend a blow to global efforts to suppress Covid infections.

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