Handing over the Covid, China vaccinates without an emergency

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Chinese who do not feel any urgency, because the epidemic is under control at home, production capacities still modest and a “vaccine diplomacy” which diverts doses abroad: vaccination begins timidly in China.

At this rate, the Asian giant, yet at the forefront of vaccine development, could see developed countries achieve collective immunity and reopen their borders before it – almost an affront.

According to a survey by the Ipsos institute, the Chinese are among the most eager to be vaccinated (85%), far ahead of the Americans (71%), the French (57%) or the Russians (42%). But the wait-and-see attitude dominates for the moment.

“I will first wait to see if there are any side effects,” Shirley Shi, a human resources manager in Beijing, told AFP.

“And then the epidemic is under control in China and I do not plan to travel abroad. So I don’t need a vaccine right away, ”she explains.

With only two deaths since May and a life that has returned to almost normal, the Chinese strategy is “very effective and gives a feeling of security to the population”, notes Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia program at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

“The sense of urgency that exists in the West (…) is not present in China,” he emphasizes.

China has already administered more than 52 million doses, which places it second in the world behind the Americans.

But the country is far behind in percentage of doses administered per 100 people: less than four, compared to 25 in the United States and 33 in the United Kingdom.

A situation that may surprise in a country known for its capacity for mobilization and which has already firmly imposed confinements, screenings and quarantines since last year.

“Great concern”

The rate of vaccination is now a source of “great concern”, Chinese infectious disease specialist Zhang Wenhong conceded Monday.

It could delay China’s achievement of collective immunity, that is, the moment when a sufficiently large part of the population is immune to the coronavirus – either via contamination or via vaccination.

An article published in November in the medical journal The Lancet estimated the percentage needed at 60-72%. Gao Fu, the director of China’s public health protection agency, set it at 70-80% on Friday.

Faced with the relative apathy, China is trying to react: it hopes to have vaccinated 40% of its 1.4 billion inhabitants by the end of June, according to respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan, figure in the fight against Covid in the country.

“Emergency” vaccinations had already started last summer for exposed groups (caregivers, employees of state-owned companies or students going abroad).

Since December, cities, neighborhood committees and businesses have gradually offered 18-59 year olds to be vaccinated.

“I work in a dental office, where there is a higher risk of contamination. We wear masks, but it’s always better to have antibodies, ”Zhang Yutong, a young woman coming out of a vaccination center in Beijing, told AFP.

Beijing has so far approved four vaccines, all Chinese. However, two did not get the green light from the authorities until the end of February.

As a precaution, people 60 and over are almost excluded from vaccination, because manufacturers have not yet published precise data from clinical tests on seniors.

Vaccine diplomacy

However, production capacities are ramping up and the authorities hope to reach 2 billion annual doses by the end of 2021.

“Currently, in terms of capacities, however, this is not sufficient to meet both China’s needs for its vaccination (…) and for its vaccination diplomacy”, underlines Yanzhong Huang, specialist in health issues at the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

Millions of Chinese vaccines go abroad, in the form of sales or donations, in order to “help the international community to overcome the epidemic”, say the authorities.

According to state media accounts, orders and donations currently represent some 560 million doses. China says it offers free vaccines to 69 countries.

A profitable sacrifice for Beijing?

“If other countries, through vaccination, achieve collective immunity, reopen their borders and return to normal life” before the end of the Chinese vaccination campaign, “it could give China a bad image”, warns Yanzhong Huang.

“It would undermine the discourse of the effectiveness of its disease control model. “

To encourage the Chinese to be vaccinated, the Chinese authorities are considering a “vaccination passport” which would allow simplified travel to places or countries that have already achieved collective immunity.