American virologist Jonas Salk completed a number of bold trials before succeeding in developing a polio vaccine in 1955. That included injecting the vaccine into himself, his wife and his three sons three years before it was allowed to be deployed nationally.
Self-experimentation is a well-recognised tradition. But in China more and more of the general public are receiving vaccine treatments that have yet to be licenced as they are still undergoing the final phase of clinical trials. This follows the authorisation in late July for the ‘emergency use’ of experimental Covid-19 vaccines.
On October 15, Jiaxing, south of Shanghai, became the first city in China to offer to inoculate residents on a voluntary basis – with a vaccine candidate developed by Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech. Health officials in the city said the programme will prioritise those planning outbound travel, in addition to “key targeted groups” including medical staff and epidemic prevention workers. The same week also saw China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a unit of state-owned Sinopharm, offer its drugs for free to students planning to study abroad. Over 168,000 people signed up for the initiative.
The two drug firms claimed that no severe adverse effects have been reported among the hundreds of thousands of recipients of the experimental vaccines. Moreover, preliminary results suggest that the treatments are efficacious, the companies say.
“We have administered the drug to diplomats as well as workers travelling to Belt and Road countries. None of them have contracted the disease after spending months in high-risk regions, which was not the case for those who had not been vaccinated,” said Zhou Song, a representative of CNBG, which is still conducting the final Phase III trials for its two candidates across 10 countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Egypt and Argentina.
The company believes the protection provided by its vaccines – which require two shots taken within 28 days – could last up to three years, despite mutations of the virus. “The main gene sequence and protein quality [of SARS-CoV-2] have not changed fundamentally,” CNBG explained, noting that its vaccines trigger desirable responses against virus strains prevalent in Austria, China, Britain, Russia, and the US.
The confidence is all the more remarkable, given the likes of Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have both temporarily halted their trials after participants fell ill in the process.
According to a study published in the Nature Medicine journal this week, researchers in Spain, the US and Britain (who surveyed 13,400 people in 19 countries) found that the country with the highest willingness to take “a proven, safe and effective vaccine” was China (87%), while the Russians have shown the most hesitation (55%). “Vaccine confidence was invariably higher in countries where trust was higher,” wrote Jeffrey Lazarus, coordinator of the study.
Chinese firms are not alone in pressing hard for a vaccine rollout. Pfizer said last week it may file for an emergency authorisation next month for a Covid-19 vaccine that it is still developing.
The pace at which the Chinese firms have developed and deployed their vaccines has drawn concerns from international medical experts. Some countries have given their stamp of approval. The UAE approved CNBG’s Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use for its frontline health workers, as none of the 31,000 volunteers who took the Chinese vaccine experienced serious side effects. Brazil’s health minister Eduardo Pazuello has also signed a preliminary agreement to buy 46 million doses of vaccines co-developed by Sinovac and Sao Paulo’s Butantan Institute. However, the plan, announced on October 2, was however thrown into uncertainty after President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his disapproval.
China has so far produced 13 vaccine candidates in clinical trials, of which four are in Phase III testing. The National Health Commission has predicted that 610 million doses of these vaccines will likely be ready for distribution by the end of this year, and another one billion in 2021.
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