However, five months later there is still no word from Chinese officials on when — or whether — the vaccine will ever be approved, even as the newly emerged Omicron variant poses a fresh challenge to China’s zero-Covid strategy — and its less effective domestic vaccines.
Much remains unknown about the fast-spreading Omicron variant, which carries an unusually large amount of mutations that scientists worry could potentially make it more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines.
According to the World Health Organization, Sinovac’s vaccine CoronaVac was just 51% effective at preventing symptomatic disease against the original variant, while Sinopharm was 79%. In comparison, the efficacy of mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna were as high as 95%.
The limited protection provided by Chinese vaccines is far from enough to satisfy China’s ambitious goal of keeping Covid infection at zero within its borders. Over the past few months, authorities have resorted to increasingly stringent measures to curb local outbreaks — often at great economic cost and disruption to daily lives.
But infections have continued to flare up. Last week, more than 130 cases were reported in eastern Zhejiang province, home to the country’s key manufacturing and export hubs. And several local authorities across China have called for residents not to travel home for the Lunar Chinese New Year to reduce the spread of the virus.
To improve waning public immunity, Chinese authorities have started rolling out booster shots — but again using the inactivated vaccines.
But still, Zeng insisted that using the same technology to deliver booster shots would be safer and more widely accepted by the public.
So why is the Chinese government reluctant to approve Western mRNA vaccines?
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said politics appears to be the main consideration at play.
“When China developed its own vaccines, they used that to show the technological progress of China. And now if you switch to a foreign-made vaccine, it’s tantamount to admitting that you’re not as good as other countries in terms of technological capabilities,” Huang said.
The Chinese government may also be keen to protect the interests of its domestic vaccine industry, according to Huang. “I’m sure they (existing vaccine makers) would be very resistant to introducing outsiders to this huge market,” he said.
While Chinese regulators held off approval for the BioNTech vaccine, domestic companies were given the green light to forge ahead with developing their own mRNA vaccines.
Several other Chinese companies, including state-owned giant Sinopharm, are also developing mRNA vaccines, Huang said. Beijing will likely want to approve homegrown mRNA vaccines before greenlighting any foreign ones, he added.
But there are signs that Chinese experts are hoping for more cooperation with their Western counterparts.
Over the weekend, Zhong Nanshan, a top Chinese respiratory disease expert and government adviser, urged China to increase exchanges and cooperation in vaccine development with other countries.
“They’ve spent years on the research and managed to develop the world’s first mRNA (vaccine) in just a few months…We need to learn from their technology in this area,” he said.