Several cities in eastern China have been cautiously rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to the public for emergency use, which is limited to specific groups including workers and students who need to travel abroad. As Chinese vaccines are still in clinical trials, the scope of vaccination is limited to special groups in urgent need and not available to the general public, local officials and health workers told the Global Times on Sunday.
After Jiaxing city in East China's Zhejiang Province announced on Thursday to gradually roll out COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, covering ordinary people who voluntarily take the injections, more cities in the province began advancing the COVID-19 vaccination for urgent use, as the onset of the autumn-winter season raises the risks of respiratory diseases.
However, approving the COVID-19 vaccination for emergency use does not mean China is allowing the general public access to vaccine injections, as some Western media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported, which also suggested that China is giving unproven vaccines on a large scale to ordinary people or students who go abroad to boost confidence in homegrown inoculations. Such interpretation of the latest policies on COVID-19 vaccines contradicts the reality and smears China's anti-epidemic efforts.
For limited use
In a community public health services center in Jiaxing, the Global Times learned that people have been coming to seek advice on vaccination rather than taking the injections. A local health worker told the Global Times that as the COVID-19 vaccines have not been put into market, they are now allowed for emergency use only.
One health worker from another community hospital also told the Global Times that there are no detailed vaccination procedures and plans for the general public yet, and local residents who come to seek advice could leave their names and contact information and wait for further notice.
However, the New York Times said in its report that China is giving the unproven vaccines to thousands of people outside the traditional testing process, which "bewildered global experts." And the Wall Street Journal ran a similar piece saying that the country is expanding the distribution of the vaccines, especially to the students who are going abroad for study, to boost the public confidence in the drugs.
As to the latest official statement from Jiaxing on Thursday saying that it is offering vaccines for urgent use that can cover ordinary people, the New York Times said the city is giving some people a vaccine that has not finished the clinical trial stage, ignoring warnings from scientists on potential risks.
But currently, the COVID-19 vaccine shots are restricted to key groups with urgent need, local health workers and officials in Zhejiang said, rebutting these reports in the Western media.
The Global Times also learned from Yiwu health authority that the COVID-19 vaccines are limited to a small part of the population in urgent need, including frontline medical staff, the city's basic operation staff, and public officials who need to travel to high-risk countries and regions on official duties.
"The city also has no plan to make the vaccine available to the general public at the time, and may consider offering it to the public only when an abundant supply of the vaccine is expected after it is officially put on the market," a source close to the local health authority told the Global Times on Sunday.
In Hangzhou's Binjiang district, local staff began registering individuals who are willing to take vaccinations and need to register at community committees, while companies need to report their needs to local health authority, the Global Times learned. And both of these groups need to report the local demand to city-level and provincial-level authorities to file applications to drug makers.
"We don't know the timetable [for the approval] yet," a local worker told the Global Times on Sunday.
In line with the vaccination administration law of China, the vaccination and distribution should be planned and monitored by the Centers for Disease Control. As the vaccines are still under the clinical trials, they are not available for the general public use, a Beijing-based immunology expert who requested anonymity said on Sunday.
According to the law, the central health authority under the State Council would give recommendations for emergency use of vaccines based on the needs of the prevention and control work.
"As for the general use of COVID-19 vaccines, it would be a top-down procedure with clear regulations and detailed information about the scope of the use as well as the accreditation by the Chinese drug administration," the expert said.
The Global Times also learned from local CDCs in Shenzhen and Dongguan, cities in South China's Guangdong Province - major manufacturing and export hubs - that the online reservation for COVID-19 vaccination has not opened to the public yet. CDCs in Beijing and in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province said they have no information to share on this matter.
Still, the public enthusiasm for the upcoming homegrown inoculations remains high, especially among those who need to travel abroad for business purpose. A local business representative surnamed Wu from Guangdong told the Global Times on Sunday that he had already taken one shot recently in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, offered by China National Pharmaceutical Group Corp, commonly known as Sinopharm, a state-run company.
"I'm planning for the second shot with the interval period of 28 days, and I feel all right," he said, noting that some of his coworkers also want the vaccination for emergency use, as they need to travel to their factories overseas soon.
Sinopharm has launched online reservation for vaccination in Wuhan and in Beijing, according to earlier media reports.
More than 152,000 people have made reservations for the vaccine while another 747,572 expressed willingness to take the vaccine as of Tuesday morning, media reported.
Compared to vaccines developed in the US and the UK, some experts noted that China indeed has higher level of safety, especially after the trial of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and University of Oxford was put on hold in September and Johnson & Johnson also suspended its trial recently because a volunteer fell ill.
Zheng Zhongwei, an official from the National Health Commission who is in charge of technology development, told a forum in July that China has confidence in vaccine safety and in its effectiveness.
Following full demonstration and under the premise of compliance with the law, China officially launched the emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines on July 22 in a scientific and safe manner with informed as well as voluntary consent.
"No one who took the injection and worked in areas with severe outbreaks got infected, which also shows the vaccination was effective to some extent," Zheng was quoted as saying in media reports.
China is conducting clinical trials of 11 COVID-19 vaccines, four of which have entered the Phase III trials, according to media reports in September.