A lack of transparency fuels Chinese vaccine concerns

In more than two years since Covid-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China and began its spread around the globe, the race has been on to develop a safe and effective vaccine. China was among the nations working towards a vaccine; in fact, the first vaccine approved and listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for emergency use was made in Beijing, by a state-owned firm, Sinopharm.

The WHO’s approval processes assess manufacturing quality, efficacy and safety. Using the same stringent process, the body approved and listed another Chinese vaccine, CoronaVac, in July 2021. This vaccine is produced by the privately-owned company Sinovac. Approval by the WHO opens the door for vaccines to be distributed to lower-income nations as part of the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative. It is interesting to note that by May 202, while 45 countries had approved Sinovac’s use, the WHO was the first stringent regulatory body to authorise the data underpinning the science of the vaccine.

This fact points to one of the reasons that Chinese vaccines are still being met with hesitance despite the fact that safe, effective vaccines are urgently needed in many parts of the developing world. Even the WHO’s approval is not enough to allay people’s concerns about the Chinese State’s lack of transparency – and a reliance on censorship and propaganda - when it comes to anything related to Covid-19, vaccines or otherwise.

A long-standing problem

Such behaviour has been evident since the start of the pandemic. China’s government was accused of withholding evidence from the public about the virus, downplaying its severity and under-reporting infection numbers. In 2021 it was reported that authorities were detaining vaccine advocates, censoring any critiques of Chinese-made vaccines and spreading misinformation about vaccines from elsewhere in the world.  In 2021 China was littered with vaccine scandals. There was mounting public concern about and backlash against the government’s persistent failure to regulate and control the vaccine market.

Families of people who died allegedly because of problems related to Chinese-made vaccines are petitioning for justice but must often deal with police harassment, intimidation and even imprisonment in return. For example, in October 2021, authorities in Henan Province allegedly forcibly disappeared He Fangmei, an outspoken critic of Chinese vaccines who blamed her daughter’s neurological disease diagnosis on the vaccine. And it’s not just Covid vaccines that have caused conflicts: Human Rights Watch reports that, before WHO experts arrived in China to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 virus, Hua Xiuzhen, a safety advocate, was forcibly disappeared by Shanghai officials. Her daughter was diagnosed with a neurological disease following her rabies vaccination. It goes back further, too. In 2018, also in Henan Province, a court sentenced self-proclaimed vaccine safety activist Zhang Da’e to two years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble".


What comes now?

There has been some improvement in 2022 – at least when it comes to the veil of secrecy within China about its various vaccines. Various potential mass spreader events (like Chinese New Year celebrations and the recently finished Winter Olympics in Beijing) put authorities on high alert.

Omicron and/or Delta variant outbreaks are occurring in numerous cities throughout the country, for example, in Tianjin (near Beijing), Anyang, Xuchang, Yuzhou, Zhejiang and Hong Kong. So, citizens are now receiving booster shots. Science dictates that these must differ from the Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines. This “mix and match” approach, according to researchers from Brazil and the University of Oxford, will induce stronger antibody protection against both variants.  Hopefully this will be the start of greater transparency from Beijing when it comes to sharing its science with global authorities, other countries – and, crucially, its citizens.

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