China’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has provoked different reactions. The initial handling of the outbreak is still viewed critically by many, although subsequent efforts to ship crucial supplies to other nations for their own fight against the virus have been seen in a more positive light.
But what about its campaign to inoculate its own people against Covid-19, which is now coming in for greater scrutiny too?
Around 41.5 million shots had been jabbed into Chinese arms by February – according to the local health authorities – more than any nation except the United States. Yet that meant a per capita vaccination rate only a little above three per 100 people, as against nearly 13 in the US (and 30 in Israel). The government has also delayed a target to inoculate 50 million people against the virus by two months, after failing to reach the threshold by Chinese New Year as initially planned.
Missing targets like these is more of a surprise for a country with a track record in mobilising resources in national-level campaigns. It also jars for a government that has run some of the most successful track-and-trace programmes against Covid and shown a readiness to be ruthless in implementing lockdowns in virus-afflicted areas.
Remember too, the Chinese were also the first to begin vaccinating their population in larger numbers, with health workers and other essential staff getting their first jabs from last summer.
So why the reports about the relatively slow progress now? One answer is the success of the virus control efforts, which have restricted new outbreaks to localised flare-ups over the last six months. That has reduced some of the urgency to get people inoculated: the fear factor is missing across local governments and the population at large.
Another roadblock to a wider rollout of vaccinations is supply. Despite the reputation of Chinese factories for ramping up production at pace – demonstrated again in the surge in deliveries of Covid-related personal protection equipment in the second half of last year – the challenges in scaling up domestic vaccination output are still significant. Assuming a double jab for most of the population, about 2.8 billion shots will be required. But earlier this year, state media was suggesting that combined output from the two biggest firms – Sinopharm and Sinovac – was likely to be 1.6 billion doses by the end of 2021, not enough for a full vaccination of the entire population.
Domestic quotas will also need to be reached at a time when the government has committed to exporting Chinese vaccines to more than 40 countries. In two recent examples, Hungary took receipt of half a million of the Sinopharm vaccine this week, while Mexico has just received two million doses of the CansinoBIO vaccine.
Countering concerns about shortages in supply were reports in the Global Times last week that Sinopharm and Sinovac were on the verge of boosting production substantially this quarter, and that both firms were on track to make more than a billion doses each of their vaccines this year.
All of this means that vaccination rates will be watched closely for signs of slippage, amid anxiety that the Chinese could be slower to achieve herd immunity than other nations.
Bloomberg has predicted that the Chinese will take five and a half years to get there at current vaccination rates, for instance, compared to 10 months for the US, and just six months for the UK.
That kind of discrepancy would reverberate across the Chinese economy because the government would then have to ring fence the population from contact with the rest of the world for a longer period, even as other economies start to show signs of returning to more robust health. That could create a reversal of the current situation in which China’s economy has been quickest to show signs of recovery from the calamity of Covid-19.
The Global Times picked up on the same dangers in an editorial late last month that called for more urgency in the inoculation campaign. “China’s vaccine production must speed up as soon as possible. We don’t have time to celebrate our past achievements. We need to move forward and focus on the future”, it urged.
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