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  • Hamsini Hariharan

China’s Vaccination Drive on Fast Mode

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on May 03, 2021 and can be accessed here.

When India opened vaccinations on Labour Day to all adults, hospitals had no slots because of a vaccine shortage. At the same time, the head of the Serum Institute left the country, reportedly because of the pressure placed on his shoulders to meet the vaccine demands of 1.3 billion people. As help pours in from other countries, it is also essential to remember India is not alone in experiencing the pandemic even though the latest mutant strains have put Indian healthcare systems under significant stress.

Countries in South Asia that primarily depended on India for vaccines are now looking to diversify supplies. It becomes increasingly clear that India does not have enough vaccines or the capacity to care for its own citizens. Over the last week, Bangladesh approved the Sinopharm vaccines for emergency use after worries about Indian delays of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. While it would be futile to compare India and China’s vaccine diplomacy, China is ramping up production in ways that are unthinkable in the Indian ecosystem.

The Chinese government aims to vaccinate 40% of its population by June. Within the country, the Chinese government, as of May 01, had already vaccinated nearly 270.41 million people and focusing on expanding coverage. The main challenge for the Chinese government was that because of the absence of COVID cases since mid-2020, citizens don’t feel any urgency to get inoculated. As a result, it has ramped up the vaccination drive, with local governments offering incentives to citizens. For example, the Sixth Tone reports that residents in Shanghai received cash handouts, rice, and even cooking oil, while Hainan announced a 150 yuan “travel subsidy” as a reward for getting the shots. In addition, other cities distributed free food, free entry to public parks, and paraphernalia to push citizens to get the jab.

Some have been overzealous to follow the Chinese government’s orders. The New York Times says, “Colleges have barred students from graduating if they have not been vaccinated, and some companies have required all employees to be inoculated, regardless of their personal health conditions. In the southern province of Hainan, village officials in the town of Wancheng apologized after initially mandating that residents who were not vaccinated would be put on a “blacklist” and barred from taking public transport or entering local markets.” China does have the capacity to ramp up vaccination if it wants to – when infections spiked last year, entire towns and cities were forced to get tested to prevent a spread. The same approach could be extended to vaccination as well.

There are also problems with the vaccine. Like India, China faces a shortage of supplies. Reuters reports, “Residents of some parts of China that are grappling with tight supplies of coronavirus vaccines have not received their second doses in time, but the crunch will ease by June as production is being stepped up, a health official told state media.” While vaccine producers are quick to point out that production capacity is being increased, there are still some snags. According to Al Jazeera, “In January, Sinovac production levels reached only half of the intended manufacturing capacity, raising doubts as to whether other, less-established Chinese companies will be in a position to meet demand.” This has been a concern for developing countries primarily relying on China for the vaccine in the absence of any other providers. The other problem with the Chinese vaccines is one of effectiveness. China’s vaccine efficacy ranges between 65- 80%, much lower than any other vaccines aimed at preventing the virus. Still, the Chinese government has gone ahead with the roll-out, with football superstars like Neymar and Messi among the many South American players to receive the Sinovac vaccines.

While the Chinese government does have a higher capacity to produce vaccines, there are still many challenges it will have to deal with before it can declare its efforts against the pandemic as successful. In this, it only has to look to India as a cautionary tale of what not to do with vaccine production and distribution.


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