The Chinese drug company Fosun Pharma filed for approval to distribute the Chinese coronavirus vaccine developed by American company Pfizer and European partners BioNTech in China, state media noted on Sunday, a sign that Beijing increasingly distrusts its homemade products.
Fosun is a formal partner with Pfizer and BioNTech and invested in the initial stages of developing a coronavirus vaccine with the two. Fosun and Pfizer initially tested rival versions of the trio’s products, leading to studies that found the Pfizer product to be superior. The version of the vaccine currently approved in the United States and used around the world is the Pfizer version of the test product, believed to be 95 percent effective in preventing coronavirus infections.
Fosun reportedly contracted to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine in December, despite being a co-owner of Sinopharm, a Chinese company that developed its own homemade vaccine candidate currently in international distribution.
The Pfizer vaccine uses novel mRNA technology – introducing a protein that appears on a coronavirus cell, but not the virus itself – to prompt the body to generate antibodies and prevent infection. Chinese media’s announcement that the vaccine may soon be available in China follows an admission last week by the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CDC), Gao Fu, that the Chinese-made products currently being used to immunize in the country “don’t have very high protection rates.” It also follows warnings that China is vaccinating its population too slowly, largely the product of Chinese citizens distrusting their local biotechnology companies after enduring multiple incidents in which vaccine manufacturers have distributed ineffective products or otherwise sickened people.
The state-run Global Times newspaper claimed that the purchase of the Pfizer product, which it meticulously referred to as the “BioNTech vaccine” before admitting it was the product “widely called Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine in Western media,” was an attempt to placate foreigners in China who feared their home countries would not consider them immunized if they received a Chinese-made vaccine.
If approved, the Pfizer product would be the first foreign-made coronavirus vaccine distributed in China.
“Fosun Pharm has submitted the clinical trial data of a COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] mRNA vaccine it co-developed with German BioNTech and relevant materials to China’s state regulator for rolling review,” the Global Times reported, citing a “source.”
“Amid the appeal for more vaccine options among some expats in China, experts said that approval of such imports could enrich the domestic vaccine pool and help facilitate reciprocal vaccine recognition among countries that will benefit foreigners coming to China and even the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing,” the newspaper alleged. “Many expats living in China have wanted some foreign-made vaccines for easier recognition when they return home.”
Fosun is reportedly seeking approval based on the Phase III clinical trial data obtained from experiments abroad, hoping Beijing will not make the company host another round of Phase III clinical trials at home.
The report added that some sources claimed it would take ten weeks for the Chinese Communist Party to approve the distribution of the vaccine.
Chinese officials have campaigned vocally to sell its domestic coronavirus vaccine candidates – most prominently the products by the Chinese firms Sinovac and Sinopharm – to developing countries around the world for whom the American mRNA products by Pfizer and rival company Moderna may be cost-prohibitive. Part of that campaign has been a series of articles in the Global Times smearing the Pfizer product, now deftly rebranded the “Fosun” vaccine, as unsafe.
Citing one alleged death of an individual who received a dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the Global Times claimed in January that experts believed “the death incident, if proven to be caused by the vaccines, showed that the effect of the Pfizer vaccine and other mRNA vaccines is not as good as expected” and that the “more mature” technology in Chinese vaccines was superior.
The January report contrasted significantly with Chinese CDC head Gao Fu’s comments at a press conference on April 11, and subsequent endorsement of mRNA vaccines.
“It’s now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunization process,” Gao explained. “Everyone should consider the benefits mRNA vaccines can bring for humanity. We must follow it carefully and not ignore it just because we already have several types of vaccines already.”
Gao said the vaccines currently available in China “don’t have very high protection rates.”
The first Chinese-made vaccine candidate approved for widespread use, “Coronavac” by the Sinovac company, tested at 50.38 percent efficacy in preventing coronavirus infections in its final trials in Brazil, where Phase III trials were underway. The CEO of Sinovac later claimed that the vaccine was “80-90 percent effective,” but did not specify what it was allegedly effective at doing or which studies yielded that result. More recent results from trials in Chile allegedly showed “Coronavac” to be 56.5 percent effective in preventing infections two weeks after patients received a second dose.
Shortly after lamenting the poor performance of the Chinese vaccines, Gao breathlessly accused international reports of “misunderstanding” him in an interview with the Global Times.
“The protection rates of all vaccines in the world are sometimes high, and sometimes low. How to improve their efficacy is a question that needs to be considered by scientists around the world,” Gao clarified. “In this regard, I suggest that we can consider adjusting the vaccination process, such as the number of doses and intervals and adopting sequential vaccination with different types of vaccines.”
Shortly after Gao’s comments to the Global Times, state media claimed that China was working on developing domestic vaccines using mRNA technology, despite Beijing previously expressing concern about the American products using it.
Chinese most respected respiratory disease expert, Zhong Nanshan, warned in March that the Communist Party was moving too slow in vaccinating its population.
“If China continues with such a low vaccination rate, it will not keep up. There’s a possibility that in the future, other countries will have [herd immunity] but China doesn’t,” Zhong said. Chinese experts have publicly claimed the problem is not a lack of vaccine doses, but that Chinese citizens are showing little interest in receiving a vaccine, in part because the Communist Party claimed the local epidemic had ended in March 2020, and partly due to significant distrust of Chinese vaccine manufacturers.
Local Communist Party officials have resorted to a variety of tactics to attract Chinese people to vaccination spots, offering free groceries or other gifts in some regions or punishing those who refuse vaccines by publishing “blacklists” in others.