China injected hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines

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The oil company worker wondered why he had to keep his vaccination a secret. Questions ran through his head as he read the confidentiality agreement, which threatened to be penalized if he spoke to anyone outside of company management about the COVID-19 shot he was taking. was waiting.What if something was wrong? Who would take the responsibility? The worker knew that the vaccine maker, China National Biotec Group – which is part of the state-owned pharmaceutical group Sinopharm – was conducting trials of this vaccine on hundreds of thousands of volunteers in the United Arab Emirates, Peru, Morocco and other parts of the world. other countries.

“At least they’re in a watched and controlled situation,” he said of the trials, watching hundreds of his colleagues line up around him to receive their injection at a Beijing clinic. “But for us, they can’t make any guarantees. It is we who make a sacrifice for the nation.

The employee – who did not give his name for fear of reprisal – is one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens who received COVID-19 vaccines before they were proven safe in trials clinics. The Chinese military started getting vaccinated in June. Medical staff and employees of state-owned companies working overseas were quickly included in an “emergency use” program. In September, a China National Biotec executive said 350,000 people outside of clinical trials had already received the vaccine.

Early vaccinations of high profile people became a way to show confidence in the Chinese medical system after a 2018 scandal in which children were exposed to faulty vaccines against diphtheria and tetanus.

In March, images of Chen Wei, a military general and epidemiologist leading one of the coronavirus vaccination efforts, were shared widely by social media users, praising her for receiving an injection before she was killed. ‘it is not tested on animals. Yin Weidong, chief executive of biopharmaceutical company Sinovac, told reporters last month that he was one of the first to take the vaccine after passing the first two phases of the trial. About 90% of Sinovac employees voluntarily took the vaccine early, the company said.

This month, the China National Biotec Group reportedly started offering free vaccines to Chinese students planning to go abroad, according to a company website that was later suppressed. More than 93,000 people had signed up for the free vaccine, the website said. Students who had been vaccinated also spoke to local and foreign media about their experiences. But state media later reported that the free vaccine offer was “not real.”

Several towns in Zhejiang province have also reportedly started offering vaccines manufactured by Sinovac. In the city of Yiwu, Chinese media found a clinic offering vaccines for around $ 30 each on a “first come, first served” basis. Most of those shot were people planning to travel overseas, although they did not have to prove it, according to local reports.

A masked woman works with test tubes in a laboratory.

A technician works in a Sinovac Biotech laboratory in Beijing on September 24, 2020. The laboratory is working on a potential vaccine against the coronavirus.

(Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

None of the vaccines have completed phase 3 trials, which often detect rare side effects that go unrecognized in previous phases.

Chinese health officials have said the vaccines are safe, without serious side effects, and their “emergency use” is justified to protect against imported infections or a national outbreak of COVID-19. But health experts outside of China are questioning the safety and ethics of such a strategy, especially when China has largely contained the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a huge gamble, because you are giving the vaccine to healthy people,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.

Such a risk might make sense in a country where the virus was spreading rapidly and frontline workers were constantly exposed to COVID-19 – as in the United States – but Western health experts and vaccine makers are turning their backs. are wary of premature vaccine deployment.

“I wouldn’t expect a country with a highly developed regulatory and safety system like the United States, the European Union [states] or Japan to allow that kind of broad access to an unproven vaccine, ”Gostin said. “It’s unethical and it’s dangerous.”

The oil company worker, who is usually based in a Persian Gulf country but has been stranded in Beijing since January, sent copies to The Times of the consent forms and the confidentiality agreement he was required to sign before receiving the vaccine. He also provided screenshots of WeChat discussions about vaccinations between his colleagues.

The worker said he received the vaccine in September as a requirement for all staff working overseas. He expressed concern about the lack of transparency or control in China’s mass vaccination of employees of state-owned enterprises and other citizens. There was no written document requiring them to receive the vaccine, he said, but workers were not allowed to return to their jobs overseas unless they were vaccinated.

“Are you afraid of the vaccine? Of course. But are you afraid of contracting the disease? Yes, you are still scared, ”the oil company worker said.

It was “politically incorrect” to question the vaccine in his business, he said. Most of his colleagues were anxious to get it. They were more afraid of catching COVID-19 abroad than of vaccine-related safety concerns.

Workers pack the rabies vaccine.

Workers package the rabies vaccine at a Yisheng Biopharma company lab, where researchers are trying to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, in Shenyang, China on June 9, 2020. China has mobilized its military and ramped up testing in the global race to find a vaccine against the coronavirus, and is involved in several of the dozens of international clinical trials currently underway.

(Noel Celis / AFP / Getty Images)

Some project managers were rushing vaccinations, he said, encouraging employees to receive two vaccines at a time instead of waiting the recommended 14 or 28 days between injections.

“I saw that some people had two shots together. … But you have to say you are leaving the country urgently,” wrote a colleague who appeared to coordinate staff vaccinations on one of the captures. WeChat screen. “I think the three of you can save a trip and come back to the project sooner.… Ask them if you can get both photos at the same time,” the colleague said.

A consent form shared by the employee appears to verify this account: “If you have an urgent need to go abroad and you really cannot complete the two-dose vaccination, you may consider receiving two injections at both left and right ”. the form says.

Although no serious side effects have been observed with this vaccine, the form warns of possible fever, fatigue, diarrhea and headache. Other vaccines on the market have occasionally caused severe reactions such as anaphylactic shock. If this happened to a vaccinated subject, he should “seek timely treatment,” the form says.

Vaccine doses are usually spaced so that the first “priming” dose sensitizes a body’s immune system to recognize a new pathogen, while the second “booster” dose stimulates higher antibody levels. said Keiji Fukuda, director of the School of the University of Hong Kong Public Health and a former official of the World Health Organization.

Giving two doses on the same day is an attempt to increase antibody levels by administering more vaccine, he said, “The prime-boost approach takes advantage of the natural functioning of the immune system. The big dose approach is more like applying brute force. ”

Premature use of a vaccine can also create a false sense of security, said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. China calls its emergency vaccines effective because they produce antibodies, he said, “But that’s a low threshold. “

Syringes of a potential COVID-19 vaccine lie on a table.

Syringes of the potential CoronaVac vaccine are seen at Sinovac Biotech.

(Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

More tests are needed to show how effective antibodies are, how long they last, and whether they can protect against different strains of the coronavirus – questions China can’t answer, where the absence of an active epidemic makes it difficult to prove the efficacy of a vaccine.

A representative of the oil company said over the phone that he “could not divulge any information” about the vaccinations. Sinopharm did not respond to telephone calls or respond to requests for comment sent by fax.

A Times reporter visited the site where the oil company worker was vaccinated, a clinic near the Beijing Olympic Park, in late September. Medical staff have confirmed that they are distributing vaccines against the coronavirus, but only to employees of designated state-owned companies, and said all of their appointment slots for the coming month have been filled.

Sinovac, the company whose vaccines are said to be distributed in Zhejiang, did not answer phone calls or respond to email requests for comment.

The opacity of China’s vaccine experiments has sparked negative reactions. Papua New Guinea complained in August when China sent minors who had received vaccines to their country without fully disclosing whether they were part of a trial or the risks of hosting vaccinated workers .

But many countries are also calling for Chinese vaccines against the coronavirus, which Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to make of a “global public good”. Brazil’s health regulator this week approved the import of 6 million Sinovac vaccines. The United Arab Emirates approved its own emergency use of a Sinopharm vaccine in September. Sinovac has agreed to deliver 40 million doses of its vaccine to Indonesia by March.

China announced this month that it is joining COVAX, a global initiative to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines in developing countries. Sinopharm also announced this month that it is preparing production lines in Beijing and Wuhan to produce 1 billion doses of its vaccines next year.

Such moves have strengthened China’s soft power regardless of vaccine transparency issues, especially compared to the United States, which has struggled to contain its COVID-19 outbreak, has pulled out of the WHO and refused to participate in COVAX.

“We cannot claim this moral high ground when we accuse China of using the vaccine to achieve its foreign policy goals. No matter what they do, at least they benefit people in developing countries, ”Huang said. “We like to talk about China exercising vaccine diplomacy, but the United States is not even in the game.”

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