China's COVID-19 vaccines are being called into question after infections surged in countries using Chinese shots
Pedestrians wear masks when they walk on a street in the capital Victoria, Mahe Island, Seychelles on Thursday, February 25, 2021. AP Photo / Salim Ally
Two Chinese shots were welcomed by vaccine-deficient, low-income countries.
However, in some cases, cases of COVID-19 also increase after widespread vaccination.
In response, observers are asking how well the shots are working, which annoys China.
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In March, the Seychelles were one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. With over half of its population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the island nation off Africa even overtook Israel.
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This rapid introduction was mainly due to China - the import of its Sinopharm shot made up 57% of all cans delivered there.
When the Seychelles saw a surge in virus cases in mid-May, even though around 60% of the population was fully vaccinated, it came as a surprise.
The surprise later increased when health officials confirmed on May 10 that more than a third of Seychelles' sick residents had in fact already taken their vaccines.
Since then, more countries using Chinese vaccines have seen increases in cases, leading to a reckoning for China as experts reassess the effectiveness of its widely used vaccinations.
Export of vaccines to 95 countries worldwide
While Europe and the US were hoarding western-made AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, China distributed its vaccines widely. It was a lifeline for low-income countries with little hope of securing American or European shocks.
China's two flagship vaccines, manufactured by biotech companies Sinovac and Sinopharm, quickly became a soft-power tool in China's foreign policy.
According to the Beijing-based Bridge Consultancy, 95 countries have received doses of the Chinese vaccines. Of the nearly 800 million doses promised by China, 272 million had been administered by mid-June.
Nurses prepare syringes with a Chinese Sinopharm vaccine in Bahrain on December 19, 2020. Ayman Yaqoob / Anadolu Agency / Getty Image
It's not just the Seychelles. Two other countries that are heavily vaccinated and heavily dependent on Sinopharm BBIB-P vaccine - Bahrain and Mongolia - have also seen increases in cases.
Both countries have stated that they continue to trust the vaccines. The Secretary of State for Health of Bahrain said more than 90% of those hospitalized there were not vaccinated.
A political adviser to the Mongolian government told The Daily Telegraph that the increase in cases was due to the end of a lockdown, not problems with the vaccine.
Still, some try to limit exposure to the Chinese footage. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, another early adopters of Sinopharm, have started offering Pfizer booster options for those fully vaccinated with Sinopharm vaccine.
China's other flagship vaccine, Sinovac's CoronaVac jab, is also under scrutiny.
Santiago, the capital of the Chilean capital, imposed another lockdown on Saturday as cases rise sharply despite nearly 60% of the country being fully vaccinated. Chile's vaccination program mainly uses Sinovac vaccinations.
Variants likely play a role in the surge, said Dr. Susan Bueno, Professor of Immunology at the Pontifical Catholic University, previously the BBC. Nevertheless, there are variants in western nations without such a pronounced effect.
The vaccines protect against serious illnesses, but may not protect against infections and minor illnesses
"You have to have really high-potency vaccines to get this economic benefit or you will be living with the disease long term," Raina MacIntyre, director of biosecurity programs at the Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, told the New York Times for a recent article.
"The choice of vaccine is important."
If the vaccine doesn't protect against transmission of the virus, countries may not be able to reach the elusive state of herd immunity if enough people in the population are protected to stop the virus from spreading.
Israel appears to have crossed that threshold recently. Earlier this month, when 60% of the country's population was fully vaccinated, cases dropped to around 15 a day and are now around zero. Israel used western shots.
An expert previously told Insider that Israel's example suggests that other countries with similar levels of vaccination can achieve herd immunity.
While Moderna and Pfizer shots are based on a new mRNA technology, Sinovac and Sinopharm's vaccines use an inactivated virus in their shot. This is an older vaccine technology that has been used successfully for other diseases for decades.
Both Chinese shots have been approved by the WHO for emergency purposes within the past six weeks.
According to published data, Sinopharm's vaccine is 79% effective in stopping symptomatic COVID-19. However, this study has reservations as it is based on a cohort of people under the age of 60, mostly men and on average quite young, around 31 years old. The most serious COVID-19 cases occur in the much older people.
Looking at the data from the Seychelles, vaccine expert Dr. Kim Mulholland of the New York Times that the Sinopharm vaccine is closer to about 50% effectiveness.
This would be in line with the protection seen with the Sinovac vaccine. The WHO says that this syringe brings 50.6% against symptomatic diseases, based on data from a large study in Brazil.
In comparison, Pfizer and Moderna shots offer over 90% protection.
China is not hiding that its vaccines are unlikely to provide comprehensive protection against COVID-19.
In an interview with the state-run China's National Business Daily published June 7, Shao Yiming, an expert at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the Chinese vaccines available in China are aimed at serious diseases, not all Prevent infections.
Nonetheless, China has been aggressive towards media raising concerns about Chinese vaccines abroad.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said such coverage "shows their unhealthy attitude to denigrate China at every turn," the Wall Street Journal reported.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying holds a weekly press conference in Beijing on March 21, 2018. Artyom Ivanov / TASS / Getty Images
Could the problem harm China itself?
Should it turn out that the vaccines cannot prevent outbreaks, it could become a problem for China, which has largely suppressed outbreaks with quick and strict lockdowns after the first wave of infections in early 2020.
The country has approved four vaccines, all made in China, three of which are based on the inactivated virus and one was developed by CanSino Biologics, which uses technology similar to AstraZeneca.
Over 600 million people have been vaccinated. While it is not known how many doses of each vaccine were used, it is likely that Sinovac's CoronaVac and Sinopharm's first vaccine make up the majority since they were first approved.
Outbreaks of the delta variant of the corona virus could also complicate the situation in China. Studies from the UK suggest that this variant is better able to escape even the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.
In May, Yiming, China's CDC researcher, said the vaccines may offer "to some degree" protection from the variants first found in India, although he did not say which vaccines and published no data to support that claim.
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