China said it has administered more than a million coronavirus vaccines since July and plans to distribute more, initially targeting workers in industries where they are at higher risk of infection as the country seeks to be at the vanguard of the global Covid-19 immunisation effort.
Vaccines developed by Sinovac Biotech and the state-owned China National Biotec Group, known as CNBG, are being dispensed in the country since they were granted emergency-use authorisation in July.
China now plans wider distribution of the experimental inoculations, with those working in hospitals, customs, in public transport and cold-chain logistics as well as vulnerable groups, including people with underlying medical conditions, to receive them first. A later phase of the campaign will involve the general public, Zeng Yixin, vice minister at China's National Health Commission, said in Beijing on Saturday.
Mr Yixin said colder winter weather posed challenges to China’s control of the virus, which it has all but eliminated internally with a combination of strict border controls and mass testing.
“Our goal is to establish herd immunity through inoculations so that Covid-19 can be effectively controlled rapidly,” he said.
The vaccine tally puts China well ahead of the US and UK, which only recently gave emergency authorisation to vaccines developed by Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech SE, allowing them to start vaccinating people in specific target groups. The US also cleared a Covid-19 vaccine from Moderna on Friday. Russia, which says it is also delivering home-grown inoculations to its population, has vaccinated 320,000 people, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The figure of a million refers to doses administered, not the number of people inoculated. CNBG chairman Yang Xiaoming said recently that more than 650,000 people had been vaccinated with Chinese vaccines, local media reported. CNBG and Sinovac's candidates follow a two-injection regimen of an initial jab and then a booster.
While Chinese officials did not disclose how many people will be vaccinated in the next phases of the inoculation effort, Bloomberg reported on Friday that by early February authorities are planning to administer locally-developed drugs to as many as 50 million workers deemed at high risk of exposure to the virus, a significant expansion that will require local branches of China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, medical clinics and hospitals to be mobilised to hit the ambitious target.
The programme, which comes amid speculation that China's drug regulator is close to signing off on the CNBG and Sinovac vaccines for general use, would be the equivalent of inoculating the entire population of South Korea in less than two months, a move that would put the country well in front in the distribution race if it succeeds. China's quick use of coronavirus testing over the past few months, with millions tested over a number of days after cases were identified, may be a model for how the nation of 1.4 billion people intends to approach the administration of vaccines.
The plans to vaccinate 50 million people underscore Beijing's focus on preventing a repeat of the deadly outbreak that started in the city of Wuhan this year. Although China has nearly stamped out local transmission of the virus and life is largely back to normal for the vast majority of its population, a smattering of infections emerged in recent weeks in the country's north-east province of Heilongjiang, in Xinjiang in the west of the country and Sichuan, and even in the Chinese capital.
No severe side effects were observed among those who have received the Chinese vaccines so far, Zheng Zhongwei, a director who oversees coronavirus vaccine development at the National Health Commission, said on Saturday. China will disclose data on the efficacy of Chinese vaccines "in time", with the developers filing updates to the drug regulator on a rolling basis.
China is also part of the World Health Organisation Covax initiative to distribute vaccines to the developing world.
Chinese vaccine developers have signed supply deals with countries including Indonesia, Singapore, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which said this month that CNBG's inoculation showed an efficacy rate of 86 per cent in a local clinical trial of more than 30,000 people.
Research indicates that China's vaccines afford protection against Covid-19 for at least six months, Mr Zeng said on Saturday. Antibodies continue to be detected in people who were inoculated as early as March, he said.
China will use its existing monitoring systems to keep track of side effects from the vaccines, said Wang Huaqing, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention's chief immunisation expert. China's mechanisms for monitoring vaccine safety meet WHO standards and the hospitals and clinics that will administer vaccinesnationwide have the capability to identify and treat any side effects, he said.
Officials said previously that there were no serious adverse events – illnesses in people who receive a vaccine that can sometimes halt a clinical trial – among those inoculated under the emergency-use programme. The country defended its wide interpretation of the emergency authorisation, which includes workers at state-owned companies headed overseas, saying the risk of Covid-19 returning through its borders remains high.