China’s Failed Covid Vaccine Nationalism

Beijing rejected foreign mRNA shots, putting its citizens at greater risk.

WSJ.com

The disaster of China’s zero-Covid policy has many contributors, starting with the Communist Party’s need for political control. One of the byproducts of that control that deserves more attention is Beijing’s vaccine nationalism, and President Xi Jinping’s decision not to offer China’s 1.4 billion citizens access to Western-made mRNA Covid vaccines.

Months into the pandemic, as vaccine manufacturers around the world began their race to develop the shots, countries including Canada and the U.S. signed contracts with multiple vaccine suppliers. The fastest and best would be deployed. But China let Communist nationalism drive its procurement decisions and rejected foreign vaccines.

That decision is still haunting the Chinese public. China’s homegrown vaccines—including Sinovac and Sinopharm—are much less effective against Covid than are the mRNA shots created by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Sinovac was much less effective initially against symptomatic Covid—only about 50%—compared with more than 90% for the mRNA vaccines.

The comparison is even worse against serious disease, especially for the most vulnerable. A Brazil BMJ study of those over age 70 found that Sinovac was only 61% protective against death and 55% against hospitalization. That compares to upward of 90% protection against hospitalization for Moderna and Pfizer for seniors.


Another study, in The Lancet, found that Sinovac produces a much inferior memory T-cell response and neutralizing antibodies against the Omicron variant. The memory T-cell response is what protects people against severe illness as variants evolve.

Tens of millions of China’s elderly still aren’t vaccinated, perhaps because word has spread that its vaccines are less effective. Some countries also refused to recognize Sinovac as an accepted vaccine, and have suggested that those who received the Chinese shot consider getting an mRNA booster.

Beijing responded with propaganda casting doubt on the safety of the Pfizer shots while boosting homegrown vaccines. In January 2021, as Chinese vaccines were distributed to other countries, the Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times ran news stories and editorials suggesting that Western vaccines were killing people.

In Hong Kong, where both Sinovac and Western vaccines were available, the choice between shots was influenced by whisper campaigns in the Chinese community that the Western shots were less safe. In March 2021, China announced that the Chinese border would be open to foreigners who received the Sinovac shots, but not for those getting the Western jab.

Central to Mr. Xi’s aggressive nationalism is selling the Chinese public on the superiority of China’s political system. China’s leaders may have felt they couldn’t accept Western vaccines lest they concede that the country still trails the West in some areas.

They may also have felt they could steal the mRNA technology. When Moderna sought to sell its vaccine in China, Beijing tried to extort the U.S. biotech leader by demanding it hand over its intellectual property, according to a Financial Times report last month. Moderna wisely declined.

Many expected that zero-Covid would end after last month’s Communist Party Congress and the release of a Chinese-made mRNA vaccine. In June Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post gushed that China’s AWcorna mRNA vaccine provided a four times stronger immune response than traditional vaccines. But the vaccine still hasn’t arrived, though it has been approved in Indonesia. Could China be using that country as a testing ground in case there are safety problems?

This is one reason that Germany’s chief government spokesperson, Steffen Hebestreit, suggested Monday that China revisit its rejection of foreign mRNA vaccines. “Perhaps after three years of the pandemic, it must be said that Europe and Germany have had very good experience with administering mRNA vaccinations,” Mr. Hebestreit said.

Good idea, but that means Beijing’s commissars would have to admit their mistake. Instead they are endangering the world again—and especially their own citizens.

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