A staff member with the China National Biotec Group tests a COVID-19 vaccine on April 11, 2020(XINHUA)
China has begun to implement its plan to vaccinate priority groups against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) within this late winter-early spring timeframe.
The southern province of Guangdong had vaccinated 180,000 people in priority groups as of December 22, 2020, Duan Yufei, Director of the Health Commission of Guangdong Province, said, adding that so far there had been no adverse events.
Emergency vaccination of priority groups was also kicked off on December 24, 2020 in Wuhan, the city in Hubei Province in Central China that first reported the disease.
"Vaccines will be given first to priority groups, which include those handling imported cold chain products and people working in highly exposed sectors such as port inspection and quarantine, aviation, public transport, fresh markets, medical treatment, and disease control," Cui Gang, an official with the disease control department of the National Health Commission (NHC), said at a press conference on December 19, 2020.
The vaccination program will also cover those who plan to work or study in countries and regions with a medium or high risk of exposure to the virus, Cui added.
Next up, with more vaccines ready to enter the market and the expansion of production capacity, inoculation of a wider population will be carried out. "This will gradually forge a barrier of immunity among the public to stop the spread of COVID-19 in China," Cui said.
Race against the virus
Safe and effective vaccines are regarded as the best weapon to win the battle against the pandemic.
After Chinese scientists shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus with the world in January 2020, scientists in many countries joined the race to develop vaccines against the virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of December 16, 2020, 222 COVID-19 candidate vaccines were being developed worldwide, with 56 of them under clinical trials.
Vaccines against COVID-19 have been rated as the most significant scientific breakthrough in 2020 by U.S.-based Science magazine, one of the world's top academic journals.
"Desperately needed vaccines against COVID-19, developed and tested at record speed, are 2020's breakthrough," stated an article published in the journal on December 17, 2020.
"A confluence of forces propelled science from zero to a COVID-19 vaccine at revolutionary speed. Never before have researchers so quickly developed so many experimental vaccines against the same foe," the article read. "Never before have so many competitors collaborated so openly and frequently. Never before have so many candidates advanced to large-scale efficacy trials virtually in parallel. And never before have governments, industry, academia, and nonprofits thrown so much money, muscle, and brains at the same infectious disease in such short order."
China has been a frontrunner in vaccine research and development. In March 2020, the adenovirus vector vaccine developed by a team led by Chen Wei, a biomedical expert at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, became the first vaccine to enter phase-one clinical trial in China. In April 2020, a phase-two clinical trial of the vaccine started in Wuhan, making it the first COVID-19 candidate vaccine worldwide to have entered the second stage of clinical trials, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Two papers published by the team in British medical journal The Lancet in May and July 2020, respectively, showed the vaccine is safe and can induce an immunity response.
As the epidemic has been effectively controlled in China, the country no longer has the actual conditions to carry out phase-three clinical trials, so the trials are being carried out overseas.
At present, a total of 15 vaccines have entered clinical trials in China, five of which are undergoing phase-three clinical trials.
China is scientifically and rigorously promoting phase-three clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines and conducting review and approval in strict accordance with laws, regulations and internationally recognized technical standards to ensure the vaccines are safe, effective and can stand the test of time, Zheng Zhongwei, an official with the NHC told Xinhua News Agency.
The five vaccines currently in phase-three clinical trials include two inactivated vaccines developed by the China National Biotec Group (CNBG) affiliated with leading pharmaceutical company Sinopharm, an inactivated vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech, an adenovirus vector vaccine developed by the Academy of Military Sciences and Tianjin-based CanSino Biologics Inc., and a recombinant sub-unit vaccine jointly developed by Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical Co. Ltd., and the Institute of Microbiology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The State Council joint prevention and control mechanism against COVID-19 has ordered the strict inspection of vaccine quality, its safe and efficient cold chain transportation, as well as the timely and accurate delivery of vaccines, said Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the NHC.
The mechanism has also emphasized the importance of providing medical support and service, especially well-timed treatment, and the reporting of any adverse reactions during the vaccination process, Zeng said.
China authorized the emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines in June 2020. Over 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been injected for emergency inoculation since July, Zheng said on December 19, 2020.
Speaking about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, he said that no serious adverse reactions have been reported, and of those who received the vaccines, 60,000 have gone to high-risk areas overseas and none of them got any serious infection.
The inactivated vaccines used for emergency inoculation were the two inactivated vaccines developed by the CNBG, as well as an inactivated vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech, which are all going through phase-three clinical trials abroad. A total of 150,000 doses of the vaccines have been administered to 75,000 people overseas during the phase-three clinical trials and no serious safety threats have occurred, Zheng said.
It is on this basis that China decided to start large-scale inoculation of COVID-19 vaccines among priority groups, Zheng added.
However, Zeng voiced the warning that although the vaccines are safe and effective, people should continue to take protective measures after being vaccinated such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands frequently because no vaccine can ensure 100 percent protection.
Many other countries have also started large-scale vaccination against COVID-19. The UK kicked off its large-scale inoculation on December 8, 2020. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized a vaccine for emergency use within the U.S. on December 10, and large-scale vaccination in the country was started on December 14, with the first person vaccinated being a nurse working in an intensive care unit.
Both the UK and U.S. use the mRNA vaccine developed by American pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer in partnership with German BioNTech. The mRNA vaccine is a new type of vaccine which instructs the cells to produce a protein—or even just a fragment thereof—that triggers an immune response inside the body. The vaccine became the first worldwide to reveal its results of three clinical trial stages, with an efficacy rate of 95 percent.
In mid-December 2020, a vaccine developed by American biotechnology company Moderna was also authorized for emergency use by the FDA.
Drug companies across the world are stepping up their production of COVID-19 vaccines. BioNTech will cooperate with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical (Group) Co. Ltd. to deliver 1 million doses of vaccines to Hong Kong in the first quarter of 2021.
BioNTech is making every effort to enable its production capacity of COVID-19 vaccines to reach 1.3 billion doses in 2021.
Fosun Phama and BioNTech announced on December 16, 2020 that once the mRNA vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech receives the green light to enter the Chinese market, they will provide at least 100 million doses to China in 2021.
Yang Xiaoming, Chairman of CNBG, told 21st Century Business Herald that the company is capable of producing 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021. In the meantime, the production capacity of Sinovac Biotech is expected to reach 300 million doses a year starting from 2021.
Nevertheless, industry insiders say there will be a big gap in the production capacity of COVID-19 vaccines in the short run. Moreover, the supply of vaccine bottles, too, will be under much strain.
(Print Edition Title: Rays of Hope)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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