Mar 29, 2021 03:43 PM

Editorial: China Needs to Remove Barriers to Covid-19 Vaccination and Move Faster

Around the world, vaccination programs are now in a race against SARS-CoV-2. Although China managed to curb the spread of the pandemic domestically, increasing the vaccination rate of the populace is still a top priority. All levels of government should take positive and effective measures to expand coverage and quickly close the widening vaccination gap between China and the rest of the world. Along the way, barriers to vaccination must be removed and haste must be made.

The significance of the Covid-19 vaccine goes without saying, whether for pandemic prevention and control, China’s economic development, or the final triumph over Covid-19 worldwide. A number of countries successfully developed various Covid-19 vaccines in less than one year after the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak began. Many have been approved, some for conditional use in public health emergencies and others for full implementation. This is unprecedented. Vaccination has already shown an initial effectiveness in controlling the pandemic.

Vaccination has a “network effect,” meaning that its utility increases along with the number of people inoculated. However, countries are not vaccinating their populations at the same rate. More than 10 Covid-19 vaccines are currently approved for large-scale inoculation or emergency use worldwide, including five vaccines developed by China. According to reports, by March 24, 85.86 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine had been administered in China, putting the country second for vaccination volume, behind the US. But when comparing China’s rate of inoculation to that of European, North American or Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, the figure is rather low, indicating China is far from realizing “herd immunity.” According to the 2021 government work report, “vaccine development will progress steadily, while the implementation of free vaccination programs will accelerate,” revealing the urgency of this task.

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Tip Sheet: Key Facts to Know About China’s Vaccine Race

There are multiple barriers hindering the full implementation of Covid-19 vaccination in China, contributing to the slow speed and low rate of inoculation. In terms of vaccine supply, China should improve its self-developed vaccine production capacity. Covid-19 vaccination is time-consuming and laborious; supporting facilities and labor are limited; supply efforts still need to be coordinated with general vaccination work. In terms of demand, the Covid-19 vaccination is free of charge and available to citizens on a voluntary basis. Despite the safety and practicality of this strategy, a short-term adverse impact on the inoculation rate is impossible to avoid. A simple and feasible method for the time being would be to release the Covid-19 vaccine to qualified hospitals and clinics, that they may conduct vaccination and relieve pressure on the disease control system, thereby improving the inoculation rate. After all, when China was developing vaccines, one of researchers’ major intents was ease of use.

Experts have been quick to point out the people were eagerly awaiting the successful development of Covid-19 vaccines, but now they refuse to get them. Indeed, this is an observable fact. Some citizens are ambivalent about the vaccination, while most have a “wait-and-see” attitude. Why the hesitation? Well, for one thing, China’s sound pandemic prevention and control has convinced some people that vaccination is unnecessary; for another, people harbor worries about efficacy — and more so the safety of Chinese vaccines — because clinical data has not been disclosed. To eliminate the former barrier, relevant departments and medical specialists must continue to publicize the necessity of vaccination; as for the latter barrier, the authorities should disclose vaccines’ clinical data in a timely manner to improve information transparency and dispel the public’s doubts. Each solution requires a particular manner of approach — for the former, no impatience; for the latter, no procrastination. Moreover, we should be objective when it comes to domestic versus international Covid-19 vaccines. Each has their respective principles and thus respective advantages. Thus, for the sake of safety and efficacy, China needs to approve imported vaccines for use in domestic hospitals and clinics, giving Chinese citizens more options for vaccination. Naturally, this will also depend on the capacity of imported vaccines and the fairness of their international distribution.

It is perfectly understandable that some people would take a wait-and-see approach to domestic vaccination. After all, multiple safety incidents in the past have ingrained a certain distrust of the vaccine industry. Recently, there have been reports of adverse reactions and even deaths after people received a vaccine. But adverse reactions to vaccines are neither uncommon, nor unique to the vaccines for Covid-19. Hence, it is important to take a scientific attitude and carefully analyze whether these outcomes were related to vaccination or just a coincidence. When it comes to potential safety issues with the vaccines themselves, in addition to strict procedures for market approval, the whole vaccine process needs to see strengthened supervision. Furthermore, relevant departments and institutions should swiftly respond to misinformation, doubts and rumors with clarifying facts.

Increasing vaccination coverage will require more than breaking down barriers; it needs direct stimulation as well. In some regions of China, local governments have adopted economic incentives to accelerate the pace of vaccination, such as issuing shopping vouchers. These attempts are commendable, but they should be carried out according to local conditions and in line with actual capacities. Different localities will inevitably vie for higher vaccination rates. However, there must not be any compulsion involved — either visible or invisible. As the Chinese saying goes, “facts speak louder than words.” In the end, the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines themselves is the most reliable testimony. For certain, as more and more people get vaccinated and demonstrate the vaccine’s positive protective effect, others’ misgivings will be dispelled, and they will gladly step forward to get their own vaccination. As soon as the proper measures are in place, China’s rate of vaccination will accelerate.

As the global availability of Covid-19 vaccines is a prerequisite for global reopening, stronger international cooperation and vaccine exchanges are of paramount importance. There are still differing opinions on the potential implementation of “vaccine passports” internationally, but this is the direction in which all countries are heading. Closer partnerships among major economies, especially between China and the U.S. or China and Europe, need to be prioritized. A few days ago, at the China-U.S. high-level strategic dialogue held in Alaska, the two sides discussed adjusting travel and visa policies in light of the pandemic situation and gradually normalizing exchanges of personnel between the two countries. Recently, the EU announced that it will launch a “digital green certificate” this summer that will allow member states to decide whether to recognize the efficacy of vaccines developed by Russia and China. These are all positive signals. International cooperation in response to global public health events should not face interference from factors of geopolitics and international relations. While guarding against vaccine nationalism, China, the U.S. and the EU should work closely with the World Health Organization to create proper conditions for the launch and global certification of vaccine passports.

Regardless of its successes in economic recovery or pandemic prevention and control, China should keep pace with other countries’ vaccination progress. With a population of 1.4 billion people, if China can improve its vaccination rate more quickly, it will constitute another major contribution in humanity’s fight against the pandemic. Covid-19 vaccination, on top of the normalized prevention and control measures, will consolidate and expand China’s hard-won achievements in pandemic prevention and control, and will ultimately bring economic and social development out from the shadow of Covid-19 to fully restore the country’s vitality.

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