Why China won’t just let the virus go around

Volunteers prepare bags of vegetables for the residents of Beijing, which is currently under a lockdown.Image ANP / EPA

About nine in ten Chinese were vaccinated early last year with one of China’s own vaccines, mainly from manufacturers Sinovac and Sinopharm, a state-owned company. Unlike Western vaccines, Chinese vaccines consist of chemically killed virus particles, rather than just the spines of the virus. A classic recipe, which Beijing proudly exported to countries including Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan and Iran.

But soon the vaccines on which that pride is based didn’t work too well. A Thai study found that of healthcare workers who have had the injections only 60 percent still had high levels of antibodies after a month. After three months that was even only 12 percent. In Indonesia, among others, the virus quickly flared up again. And in Brazil, it was decided to switch to other vaccines, after it was found that CoronaVac, Sinovac’s vaccine, protects the elderly against hospitalization for only 30 percent, much less than the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Then the omikron variant was yet to come. Although the Chinese vaccines still provide some protection against hospitalization and death, they appear to be infected with the omikron variant hardly to hold back. And boosters only help a little: to make matters worse, a shot with the Western Pfizer vaccine appears to be the best booster. That would require Xi Jinping to buy vaccines in the United States with hanging legs: an ignominious failure.


“I also thought: why doesn’t China just let it go? But that was before I delved into the numbers’, says Professor of Microbiology Heiman Wertheim (Radboud UMC). “If you allowed the virus to circulate, the number of hospital admissions would certainly become a problem. Because of the law of large numbers: even small percentages quickly translate into huge numbers in China’s huge population.’

In addition, many older Chinese, the most vulnerable group, have had themselves vaccinated poorly, out of historically grown mistrust of the state. Only 64 percent of a quarter of a billion Chinese over-60s have had a booster. This is only about 30 percent among the over-80s.

A sinister omen is the omikron outbreak that raged in Hong Kong last spring, resulting in overcrowded hospitals and thousands of deaths. In New Zealand, also an island that first gave up its zero-covid policy, intensive care units remained virtually empty. The crucial difference: in New Zealand, almost all elderly people have been vaccinated with Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine. After the first wave, more than 9,000 people had died in Hong Kong, 15 times the number in New Zealand.


Beijing is now frenetically trying to save what can be saved, including by producing mRNA vaccines itself. Six of these are currently in development. The most advanced, from vaccine manufacturer Abogen in Suzhou, is currently being tested in Mexico and Indonesia. Tellingly, as early as March 2020, the Chinese company Fosun Pharma from Shanghai signed a deal with Pfizer for the supply of its mRNA vaccine, if it ever materialized. But Beijing has always delayed the vaccine approval, out of ‘technonationalism’, according to the British magazine Nature.

This is how China has trapped itself, out of nationalism and stubbornness. ‘A way out of this situation would be to admit the Pfizers and the Modernas,’ says Wertheim. “But then Beijing would have to step over its own pride.”

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