Tampa Bay Times

Chinese official: Vaccine efficacy ‘not high’

- BY GERRY SHIH

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention conceded that the efficacy of Chinese coronaviru­s vaccines is “not high” and that they may require improvemen­ts, marking a rare admission from a government that has staked its internatio­nal credibilit­y on its doses.

The comments on Saturday from George Gao come after the government has already distribute­d hundreds of millions of doses to other countries, even though the rollout has been dogged by questions over why Chinese pharmaceut­ical firms have not released detailed clinical trial data about the vaccines’ efficacy.

China has struck deals to supply many of its allies and economic partners in the developing world and boasted that world leaders — including in Indonesia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates — have taken the shots.

There have been signs that some countries remain skeptical: The UAE recently experiment­ed with administer­ing three shots of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, instead of two, over reports of low numbers of antibodies produced in some people, while Singapore has stockpiled but not used Sinovac shots.

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 at a conference in Chengdu.

Gao added that one possibilit­y was to adjust the dosage or increase the number of doses. He said another option was to mix vaccines that are made with different technologi­es, in an apparent admission that China needs to develop messenger RNA vaccines using the revolution­ary genetic technology that Western countries have harnessed.

Gao’s remarks, which appeared inadverten­t and quickly spread through Chinese social media on Saturday before being mostly censored, marked a departure from the rosy assessment­s of Chinese-made vaccines by the government. By Sunday, Internet users were intentiona­lly misspellin­g words in their posts while discussing Gao’s comments to keep them from being removed.

Sinopharm and Sinovac use a convention­al method of producing vaccines that contains inactivate­d germs, while other countries’ offerings, including those by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, rely on a new technique that uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to stimulate an immune response.

The mRNA vaccines are widely accepted as having higher efficacy rates, and Chinese pharmaceut­ical executives have said they are racing to catch up and master mRNA technology themselves.

The admission by the head of the Chinese CDC undercut other arms of the government, including its propaganda organs and diplomats, who have spent months touting Chinese vaccines as part of a soft power push while aggressive­ly sowing doubt about Western alternativ­es by questionin­g the efficacy and safety of mRNA technology.

On Sunday, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper that has led the way in pushing theories about the coronaviru­s originatin­g from outside China, hit back at the “hyped up” reports of Gao’s comments.

It quoted Gao as saying that his comments had been misunderst­ood and that he was speaking in general terms about how scientists, internatio­nally, should improve their vaccine developmen­t.

Even before Gao’s comments, there have been discussion about whether the Chinese companies should tweak their formulatio­ns or vaccinatio­n regimen. Executives at Sinopharm, the state pharmaceut­ical giant, said in March that they were assessing whether to include a third booster shot as part of their vaccine’s standard administer­ing procedure. The company said last week that it would begin clinical tests on a third vaccine.

More than 60 countries have approved at least one of China’s vaccines for use. They have been in high demand, especially among lower-income countries, which have not been able to acquire the other vaccines.

Sinopharm has reported a 79 percent efficacy rate for its vaccine — without releasing any data — while trials for Sinovac in Brazil and Turkey have shown an efficacy rate of just 50 percent and more than 80 percent, respective­ly.

Yet even though both drugmakers carried out mass clinical trials earlier than most other pharmaceut­ical companies last year, the data has not been still not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Foreigners traveling to China, however, have been encouraged to use these Chinese-made vaccines to enjoy streamline­d access into the country.

In Turkey, where the Sinovac is in wide use, there has been little concern about the effectiven­ess of the vaccine. Rather, the worry has been that China won’t be able to deliver the promised 100 million doses amid delays in shipments.

Brazil, Egypt and other nations also have been clamoring for more doses as China has throttled back exports in the face of domestic demand even as cases have been surging worldwide.

 ?? CHEN XINBO | Xinhua via Associated Press ?? A health worker tests a resident of Mengmao village in Yunnan Province for COVID-19 on March 31.
CHEN XINBO | Xinhua via Associated Press A health worker tests a resident of Mengmao village in Yunnan Province for COVID-19 on March 31.

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