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Slow to start, China mobilizes to vaccinate at headlong speed


As of Tuesday, China had given more than 680 million doses – almost half of which were in May alone. According to Our World in Data, an online research site, China accounts for about a third of the global distribution of the total 1.9 billion shots.

The call to get vaccinated comes from every corner of the society. Companies give shots to their employees, schools solicit their students and employees, and local government workers check on their residents.

This pressure underscores both the strength of the system, which makes it possible to consider vaccinating more than a billion people this year, but also the risk to civil liberties – a concern worldwide but particularly in China. Sharp, where there is some security.

“The Communist Party has people in every village, every neighborhood,” said Ray Yip, former country director of the Gates Foundation in China and a public health expert. “It’s the harshest part of the system, but it also provides very powerful mobilization.”

China now averages about 19 million shots per day, according to a rolling seven-day average from Our World in Data. That would mean one dose for everyone in Italy every three days. The United States, home to about one-quarter of China’s population, jumped to about 3.4 million shots per day in April, when its drive was at full swing.

It is still unclear how many people in China have been fully vaccinated – which could mean anywhere from one to three doses of vaccines – because the government does not publicly release that data.

Zhong Nanshan, a leading government doctor and head of a group of experts affiliated with the National Health Commission, said on Sunday that 40% of the population had received at least one dose, and the aim was to completely vaccinate that percentage. end of month.

In the capital Beijing, 87% of the population has received at least one dose. Getting a shot is as easy as walking to one of the hundreds of vaccination points found throughout the city. Vaccination buses are parked in high pedestrian-traffic areas, including the city center and malls.

But Beijing’s abundance is not shared with the rest of the country, and local media reports and complaints on social media show the difficulty to be found elsewhere.

“I started queuing that day at 9 am, till 6 pm, only then did I get the shot. It was exhausting,” Zhou Hongxia, a resident of Lanzhou in northwestern Gansu province, explained recently. “When I left, people were still waiting.”

Zhou’s husband hasn’t been so lucky and hasn’t had a shot yet. When they call the local hotline, they are simply asked to wait.

Central government officials on Monday said they are working to ensure that supplies are more evenly distributed.

Before the campaign intensified in recent weeks, many people were in no hurry to get vaccinated because China has kept the virus, which was the first in the country in the past year with strict border controls and mandatory quarantines, at bay. It has suffered small clusters of infections from time to time, and is currently managing one in the southern city of Guangzhou.

While there are distribution issues, Chinese manufacturers are unlikely to have problems with scale, according to analysts and those working in the industry.

Sinovac and Sinopharm, which produces most of the vaccines being distributed in China, have both aggressively ramped up production, building new factories and repurposing existing ones for COVID-19. Sinovac’s vaccine and one of two Synapharms have received an emergency authorization for use from the World Health Organization, but companies, especially Sinopharm, have faced criticism for a lack of transparency in sharing their data.

“What place in the world can compare with China on construction? How long did it take for our makeshift hospitals to be built?” Li Mengyuan, who leads pharmaceutical research at Western Securities, a financial firm. China built field hospitals in just a few days at the start of the epidemic.

Sinovac has said it has doubled its production capacity to 2 billion doses annually, while Sinopharm has said it can manufacture up to 3 billion doses annually. But SinoPharm didn’t disclose recent numbers about exactly how many doses it made, and a spokesperson for the company did not respond to a request for comment. The company said on Friday that Sinovac has produced 540 million doses by the end of May this year.

Government support has been critical for vaccine developers at every step – as in other countries – but, as with everything, its scope and scale are different in China.

Yang Xiaoming, chairman of Sinopharm’s China National Biotech Group, recently told state media how the company initially needed to borrow lab space from a government research center while it was working on a vaccine.

“We shipped our samples, there was no need to discuss money, we just did it,” he said.

Chinese vaccine companies are also not largely dependent on imported products in the manufacturing process. This is a huge advantage at a time when many countries are scrambling for the same ingredients and it means that China could possibly avoid what happened with the Serum Institute of India, which is produced by the US for some ingredients. was hampered due to dependence on imports from

But as the availability of the vaccine increases, so too can the pressure to take it.

In Beijing, a university researcher said the school’s Communist Party cell calls her once a month to ask if she has had a vaccine yet, and offers to help her make an appointment.

He has so far refused to take a shot because he would prefer the Pfizer vaccine, saying he trusts its data. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns he could face repercussions for publicly questioning Chinese vaccines at his job at a government university.

China has yet to approve Pfizer for use, and the researcher isn’t sure how long that might last – although the government has warned against making vaccines mandatory for now.

“They don’t have to say it’s inevitable,” public health expert Yip said. “They’re not going to announce that it’s necessary to have a vaccine, but they can put pressure on you.”

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Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing and researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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