China has been vaccinating essential workers since July 22

Science & Health

China, under an emergency use authorization, has vaccinated an unspecified number of essential workers outside of clinical trials since July 22, a top health official revealed. At the same time, clinical trials for China’s four COVID-19 vaccine candidates are expanding overseas.

a medical worker
An unspecified number of essential workers, like medical professionals and civil servants, have received experimental COVID-19 vaccines in China over the past month, a top health official said. Photo of a hospital worker in Brazil by Tchelo Figueredo / Latin America News Agency via REUTERS.

China is on track to lead the world in development and rollout of a coronavirus vaccine. Four vaccines developed by three Chinese companies — one from CanSino Biologics, another from Sinovac Biotech, and two vaccine candidates from Sinopharm — are in Phase 3 trials, the final and largest phase of human testing before approval for public use.

But, it turns out, China didn’t wait for final approval to start vaccinating significant numbers of its citizens, beyond those officially enrolled in clinical trials.

  • For over a month, since July 22, China has been secretly vaccinating essential workers under an “emergency access program,” Zhèng Zhōngwěi 郑忠伟, director of the science and technology development center of the National Health Commission, revealed over the weekend.
  • The revelation gives China the “dubious honor of the first nation to roll out an experimental coronavirus vaccine for public use,” the Washington Post points out, as a much-criticized Russian announcement of a premature vaccine rollout was only revealed earlier this month.
  • It had been reported earlier in July that some Chinese state-owned companies were “selectively testing their vaccines on small pools of people,” which was already unconventional, but Zheng’s announcement appears to indicate a wider program.

Zheng defended the move as well planned, Yicai reports:

“We’ve drawn up a series of plan packages, including medical consent forms, side-effects monitoring plans, rescuing plans, compensation plans, to make sure the emergency use is well regulated and monitored,” Zheng…told CCTV on August 22.

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.

By first inoculating the special groups, like frontline medical workers and civil servants, the move is to ensure that a city can keep normal functions when a health crisis strikes, the law stated.

Nonetheless, the secrecy “could reflect caution among authorities, as a quiet rollout would be easier to end if those inoculated reported severe side effects,” the Washington Post suggests.  

Another new revelation, per Yicai (in Chinese): Sinopharm had been distributing one of its vaccines to workers in Beijing since July 22.

  • The first group to be vaccinated were disease prevention and medical staff.
  • After that, subway, mass transit, aviation, and other public transportation staff have also been vaccinated, and “vaccinations of relevant persons are continuing.”

It is unclear how many vaccines have been administered outside clinical trials in China, or whether vaccines from companies other than Sinopharm have been distributed under the emergency access program.

Phase 3 trials expand quickly

At the same time that the emergency access program in China was rolled out, Phase 3 trials of China’s four vaccines were announced in many countries. The trials are all occurring outside of China because, at least according to official numbers, there are practically no active COVID-19 cases in China.

These clinical trials, or potential trials, have all been announced in the past week, in addition to the earlier trials that we detailed:

In addition to earlier promises of priority access to Chinese vaccines for countries like the Philippines, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Russia, Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强 today promised that “countries around the Mekong River” — Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam — would also get a special vaccine aid program, Caixin reports.

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