The COVID vaccines produced in China are underperforming—and officials are flip-flopping on what to say about them

chinese vaccines effectiveness
Photo via Tomas Roggero/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

China’s top disease control official appeared to acknowledge that the two Chinese vaccines that the country is using in the fight against COVID-19 aren’t as effective as others released around the world, though he backtracked on those comments a day later. 

Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Gao Fu told attendees at a convention on April 10, according to Associated Press’ report, “We will solve the issue that current vaccines don’t have very high protection rates. It’s now under consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunization process.”

In the presentation, he praised the mRNA technology employed by both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines being used widely in United States vaccination efforts. 

However, Gao told the AP the next day that “he was speaking about the effectiveness rates for ‘vaccines in the world, not particularly for China,’” and did not answer follow-up questions about which specific vaccines he was referring to. 

The Washington Post added that Gao’s comments came “after the government has already distributed hundreds of millions of doses to other countries, even though the rollout has been dogged by questions over why Chinese pharmaceutical firms have not released detailed clinical trial data about the vaccines’ efficacy.” 

The Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines in question use inactivated viruses, according to the Post. It added that some of the countries receiving those vaccines are expressing skepticism about their efficacy, with the UAE recently experimenting with giving three shots instead of two because of low antibody numbers. Singapore, meanwhile, has not yet used the shots it has stockpiled.

“Officials in Brazil said in January that the efficacy rate for the CoronaVac vaccine from the Beijing-based company Sinovac was just over 50%, which is the threshold that the World Health Organization has said would make a vaccine effective for general use,” the New York Times wrote. That compares unfavorably to both mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, that provide more than 90% efficacy in real-world use. 

Gao’s remarks didn’t go unnoticed in his homeland. The Washington Post noted that they “appeared inadvertent and quickly spread through Chinese social media on Saturday before being mostly censored, marked a departure from the rosy assessments of Chinese-made vaccines by the government.” It added, “By Sunday, Internet users were intentionally misspelling words in their posts while discussing Gao’s comments to keep them from being removed.” 

CNN, also reporting on the apparent censorship efforts, noted, “Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, quoted Gao as saying reports about his admission were ‘a complete misunderstanding,’ and published new, toned-down remarks from Gao.” 

Sources: Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN

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