China might be weeks away from a COVID-19 vaccine

Science & Health

China has already vaccinated vast numbers of essential workers and state-owned enterprise employees without a conventional clinical trial process. As soon as this month, however, Beijing may give official approval to a clinically tested vaccine, and begin public rollout in November.

china vaccine
Illustration by Derek Zheng

Despite President Trump’s insistence that the U.S. is only “weeks away from a vaccine” for COVID-19, top health officials have said the country is “extremely unlikely” to approve a vaccine in October or November. Pfizer has said that in the best-case scenario, it could have final clinical trial data by the end of October, which could lead to official approval a minimum of several weeks later.

In contrast, China is likely closer to approving a vaccine, and Beijing may actually be only weeks away from approving a final candidate and moving forward with a formal, public rollout.

What you need to know about China’s vaccine progress

Four vaccine candidates 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.

Over a dozen countries are running Phase 3 trials for these vaccines, according to the South China Morning Post, including: Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Russia.

China has already vaccinated hundreds of thousands of people outside of clinical trials, with an emergency use authorization starting on July 22, Beijing revealed in August.

  • It is not unheard of for vaccines to be given preliminary approval for small numbers of frontline medical professionals before the public, but China’s unofficial rollout has gone far beyond that.
  • Essential workers, government employees, and staff at state-owned enterprises, particularly those in Beijing, have reportedly been widely vaccinated.
  • Sinovac Biotech said that about 90% of its employees and their families had received the vaccine by early September, and by mid-September, a Sinopharm executive told Chinese media that “emergency inoculations have reached 350,000 people,” per Nikkei Asian Review.
  • “China’s rush has bewildered global experts,” wrote Sui-Lee Wee at the New York Times.

There could be “some level of approval…in October” for a coronavirus vaccine, most likely from China National Biotec Group (Sinopharm), Hé Yìwǔ 何亦武, the chief innovation officer at the University of Hong Kong, told Peter Hessler of the New Yorker. Other sources told Hessler that Sinopharm has been filing application materials for official approval, and that “the process will be accelerated because of pressures related to both the pandemic and politics.”