Chinese COVID-19 vaccine producers expected to prioritize countries severely affected by pandemic: vice president of CPMA

Updated: February 26, 2021 Source: Belt and Road Portal
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Editor’s Note:

With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening people’s lives and well-being all over the world, it has been acknowledged that the greatest chance we have of beating the virus lies in large-scale vaccination.

What is the current state of vaccination progress in China? What are the challenges emerging from the process? How can China work with countries and regions along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) routes in terms of distributing COVID-19 vaccines?

In a recent interview, Liang Xiaofeng (Liang), vice president and secretary general of the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association (CPMA), held an in-depth discussion with the Belt and Road Portal (BRP) to tackle these questions. Liang said that COVID-19 vaccination is going smoothly in China and added that the country will take on more international responsibilities and provide assistance to countries that are severely affected by the pandemic, including those along the BRI routes.

Liang Xiaofeng, vice president and secretary general of the Chinese Preventive Medicine Association

BRP: Could you give us an idea of the current COVID-19 vaccination progress in China?

Liang: People are saddened by the recent news that over 100 million people around the world have been affected by COVID-19, and more than 2 million have died. In the early stage of the pandemic, we tried to overcome it with specific medicines and other treatments, but hardly any breakthroughs were made. People around the world are now placing their hopes on COVID-19 vaccines, which seems to be the solution to the pandemic with the greatest potential.

Based on the current data, COVID-19 vaccination is going smoothly in many countries. For example, some Middle Eastern countries, such as Israel, are witnessing comparatively high vaccination rates, thanks to their economic strength, relatively small population and well-organized vaccination procedures.

As for China, nearly 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed for inoculation so far, with no severe adverse cases reported, and people’s acceptance of the vaccine appear to be on the right track, which shows that China’s public health and medical system is well-established and efficient.

BRP: The COVID-19 vaccines most widely used around the world are inactivated vaccines and mRNA vaccines. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these two types of vaccines?

Liang: There are several indicators for evaluating a vaccine. The mRNA vaccines were approved for use in some countries at an earlier stage. This is the first time mRNA technology has been applied to the development of human vaccines, and its effectiveness remains to be evaluated. But according to the information we have at this moment, the quality of the mRNA vaccines are up to standard.

However, the mRNA vaccines have to be kept at temperatures of minus 70℃ during transportation and storage, which is hard to do in some developing countries. Vaccine companies are looking for solutions to this problem. The Chinese company Fosun Pharma has already started preparing for cold-chain transportation of mRNA vaccines.

Inactivated vaccines are easier to store than mRNA vaccines. For instance, the COVID-19 inactivated vaccines developed by Chinese companies Sinovac and Sinopharm can be kept at between 2℃ and 8℃.

The fundamental indicator for evaluating a vaccine is its effectiveness. The results of phase-3 clinical trials show that the effectiveness rate of COVID-19 inactivated vaccines is nearly 80 percent and around 90 percent for mRNA vaccines. Based on the standard vaccine evaluation, an efficacy of 80 percent is pretty good.

BRP: How long can the COVID-19 vaccine-induced immunity last?

Liang: Indeed, many people are concerned about the validity period of the COVID-19 vaccines, but it is too early now to reach a conclusion. People are also worried about the contraindication to the vaccines– apart from common chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, which groups are unable to receive the vaccination?

Currently in China, people from 18 to 59 years of age are encouraged to receive the vaccines. Once the vaccination is available to senior citizens and children, the rate of serious side effects might be different, which means the situation needs to be closely monitored.

Moreover, mRNA vaccines are widely used in Hong Kong, whereas in the Chinese mainland people normally receive the inactivated vaccines. The difference in side effects from the two still needs to be studied.

BRP: What rate of vaccination is needed to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19? Will the production capacity of our vaccine companies keep up with demand?

Liang: The production process of aCOVID-19 inactivated vaccine is relatively long, and includes six major steps: cultivation, inactivation, purification, proportioning, filling and packaging. The mRNA vaccine production process is simpler. If mRNA technology can prove to be successful this time, it will be a major revolution for the vaccine industry.

Sinopharm had announced that their COVID-19 vaccine production capacity will reach 1 billion doses this year. With more Chinese COVID-19 vaccines passing phase-3 clinical trials, a large number of vaccines will be authorized for use in the future.

BRP: How can vaccine cooperation with countries along the BRI routes be strengthened?

Liang: At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF), Chinese President Xi Jinping specially emphasized the importance of scaling up cooperation on the R&D, production and distribution of vaccines and make them public goods that are truly accessible and affordable to people in all countries.

China will take a greater international responsibility and provide assistance to countries that are severely affected by the pandemic. For countries along the BRI routes that have already started administering Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, China needs to follow up with the public reactions after vaccination, collecting data on effectiveness and side effects. Chinese public health institutions should be encouraged to connect with local institutions in the receiving countries to properly deal with possible side effects.

Now that phase-3 clinical trials of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines have been conducted in some countries along the BRI routes and with more Chinese vaccines being exported to these countries, local people will definitely benefit from the cooperation.

BRP: Many countries now have great expectations of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines. What are the reasons for this?

Liang: China’sinactivated COVID-19 vaccines use a relatively traditional technology whose safety is generally accepted and trusted. The only potential concern is antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE), which has not been reported so far. Nearly 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed in China to date, and the vaccination process is going smoothly with no major side effects reported. This has made many countries around the world confident that they can trust and embrace Chinese vaccines.

At present, more than 40 countries have expressed the need to import Chinese COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, it is important to evaluate the efficacy of Chinese vaccines in a scientific and fair manner.

BRP: In what ways has China and countries and regions along the BRI routes cooperated in the public health sector?

Liang: China has had quite a lot of public health cooperation with countries along the BRI routes. One significant project is the joint construction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with countries along the routes. China has approved the establishment of the African CDC in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and is also planning to build another one in Myanmar.

China has been helping countries along the BRI routes deal with infectious diseases for a long time. For example, China helped Pakistan and Afghanistan eradicate polio, conducted joint research on plague, anthrax and brucellosis with Mongolia, Kazakhstan and other countries, and provided assistance to Congo (DRC) and other African countries to cope with malaria and Ebola.

This cooperation can help improve local health care conditions, and can also protect the Chinese citizens working in those countries.

The CPMA specifically arranged for experts to conduct research and analysis on key infectious diseases in countries along the BRI routes. After the outbreak of COVID-19, the CPMA, together with the Department of International Cooperation of National Health Commission of China, provided training on knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic and nucleic acid testing skills for medical teams in African and Central American countries, including some countries along the BRI routes.

In the future, I suggest sending public health professionals to Chinese embassies in countries along the BRI routes to work together with local health departments. Public health cooperation is not one-sided assistance. It requires professionals from both sides to better understand and communicate each others’ needs to achieve better cooperation.

In countries along the BRI routes that have already started receiving Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, I suggest that the authorities and relevant companies arrange for professionals to stay in communication with public health agencies in those countries, following up with long-term observations to record the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines.

Yu Huichen contributed to the story.

Editor: Yu Huichen