China and the UK are pioneers in the battle against Covid-19 but they are taking very different approaches to the vaccination of their citizens against the virus.
By Duncan Bartlett for China Plus
I have received many positive and encouraging messages from my friends in China and Asia about the start of a vaccination programme against coronavirus here in Britain.
It is evident that there is strong hope around the world that the vaccine will be effective and reliable and that the fightback against this terrible disease is now firmly underway.
I want to thank my Asian friends for all their good wishes.
I am sure that, like me, they were pleased to watch the reports on television about the first people in the UK to receive the vaccine, which was developed jointly between Pfizer and BioNTech.
It felt like a historic moment.
To begin with, about 800,000 thousand doses are being given to the over-80s and to care home workers and health workers.
The Prime Minister, Boris Johsnon, went to watch a vaccine team at work at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where he was treated for Covid-19 just a few months ago.
“I hope people will contain their impatience. It is a very exciting moment but there is still a lot of work to be done and a discipline needs to be maintained,” said Mr Johnson.
Most of those who received the vaccine initially will need to go back for a second jab in a few weeks, to ensure they are fully immunised.
There are also two more vaccines coming down the line: one made by Moderna and the other developed by scientists from Oxford University.
The Oxford vaccine can be stored at the temperature of an ordinary refrigerator, making it easier to manage than other formulas, which must be kept extremely cold.
However, there is a question on people’s minds.
Has Britain rushed ahead with the vaccine’s use, just because it has been so severely affected by the pandemic? Covid-19 has caused more than 60,000 deaths in the UK and hospital managers have warned the health service is at risk being overwhelmed in a third wave of infections after Christmas.
So this leads to a concern: have safety standards been compromised in the wake of a panic?
Although I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m satisfied that the vaccine has passed the required medical tests and is safe to use.
The message on the official website of Britain’s National Health Service reassures us that the vaccine has met strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness, as set out by the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
“Any coronavirus vaccine that is approved must go through all the clinical trials and safety checks all other licensed medicines go through. The UK has some of the highest safety standards in the world,” says the NHS.
So how does the situation in the UK now compare with China and other parts of East Asia?
Since March, China has used emergency regulation to provide vaccines to more than a million health care workers and to other people who are deemed at high risk of infection. The Chinese pharmaceutical industry has also been working on vaccines from a number of producers, some of which are being tested internationally.
For non-experts like me, it is not easy to grasp the technology used in the different types of vaccine, or to appraise their effectiveness. What is clear though is that some of the Chinese vaccines use a different system from the one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. In some reports, the Chinese approach is described as “novel” or “experiential” which suggests that vaccines of this type have not been widely used before.
China’s leaders have come to the conclusion that the risk of using these experimental vaccines is low and that’s why they have already been given to hundreds of thousands of people, including health care workers and soldiers.
In the coming weeks, I expect to see a wider distribution of vaccines in China, with individual provinces coordinating local medical programmes. How many doses will be available? Well, the South China Morning Post reports that Wang Junzhi, a member of the nation’s vaccine task force, told journalists on December 4 that 600 million doses of vaccines will be ready for launch in China before the end of this year.
I also got an insight into how China appraises the risks associated with using a new type of vaccine by listening to Zheng Zhongwei, the director of the Science and Technology Development Center of China’s National Health Commission, who did an interview with China’s state television channel in August. August 22.
He said: “An emergency-use authorization, which is based on Chinese vaccine management law, allows unapproved vaccine candidates to be used among people who are at high risk of getting infected on a limited period.”
Internationally, China’s priority is to ensure that when vaccines become available in large quantities, they are offered at affordable prices to developing countries.
President Xi Jinping has vowed to make the vaccine available around the world as a “global public good.”
In October, China joined the Covax Facility, a global alliance of 189 countries that have pledged to equitably distribute vaccines. The US is not part of that group.
As a sign of its international commitment, the Chinese company Sinovac has already sent 1.2 million vaccine doses to Indonesia. Other countries which have partnered with China in the vaccine development programme, such as Mexico, Brazil and Turkey are also set to receive Chinese vaccines in large quantities.
All of this is very encouraging and I think there are a lot of grounds for optimism.
I also share the view of the British Ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, that our two countries should join hands to defeat COVID-19.
In a recent interview with China Media Group (CMG), in which she spoke in Chinese, Ambassador Wilson described the pandemic as a “global challenge,” adding that it will not be over if there’s even one remaining country with Covid-19 cases.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.