The Morning Jolt

Health Care

China’s Unreliable COVID Vaccines Are under Fire

Medical workers vaccinate students with the coronavirus vaccine at a university in Qingdao, China, March 30, 2021. (China Daily/via Reuters)

On the menu today: A country that has done gangbusters at vaccinating its citizens finds itself with a significant outbreak among people who were already vaccinated — raising questions of just how much good the Chinese vaccine actually does; the pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “made it harder for enthusiasm to bloom among the skeptical,” in the eyes of one analyst; and an undiplomatic choice for U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The World Grows Increasingly Reliant on Unreliable Chinese COVID Vaccines

Say it with me, China enthusiasts: “Vaccine diplomacy” is only a masterstroke if the vaccine works. Otherwise, you might as well just send other countries syringes full of soy sauce. As the April 21 Morning Jolt observed, “the Chinese-made vaccine works about as well as the Chinese-made personal protective equipment: It’s really hit-and-miss.

The Chinese vaccines appear to sort of work, sometimes. And if you’re in a situation like India is currently, with COVID-19 deaths around 4,000 per day, or afraid your country could end up in a situation like India’s, the Chinese vaccine probably looks a lot more appealing than nothing.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that the “Seychelles, which has vaccinated a higher proportion of its population against coronavirus than any other country, is struggling to contain a new surge in COVID-19 infections, raising questions about the effectiveness of a Chinese shot the island nation has administered to the majority of its vaccinated residents . . . According to the health ministry, more than one third of new active cases are people who are fully vaccinated. Authorities in the Seychelles haven’t said how many of those cases arose among people vaccinated with the Chinese shot.”

The thing is though, the signs have been there all along.

As I noted last week, the Chinese government insists that the COVID-19 pandemic effectively ended in their country last February, that their deaths and case numbers have been astoundingly low since early last spring, and that none of the variants have had any impact on their country in any significant way.

The Chinese government is so committed to this narrative that it said it could not conduct the usual testing of the effectiveness of the vaccines, because the virus was so rare in China: “China’s vaccines have had to be trialed elsewhere because the country didn’t have enough transmission itself to conduct them, says George Gao, who heads the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.” As of this date, there is still no public large-scale trial results of the Sinopharm or SinoVac vaccines among the Chinese people.

China approved the Sinopharm and SinoVac vaccines for emergency use back in July. The Sinopharm vaccine is currently being administered into arms in 38 countries, mostly across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and the Sinovac vaccine is being administered in 24 countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The pandemic in India is so severe, the government there has halted exports of the Indian-produced version of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, called CoviShield. With India’s exports suddenly no longer available, countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are turning to the Chinese vaccines. For a lot of countries, the choice is not between the iffy Chinese vaccines and the more reliable Pfizer or Moderna ones. The choice is between the iffy Chinese vaccines and nothing.

The best news for Sinovac vaccine came from a study in Turkey with more than 10,000 participants that began in September and ended in March, and found the efficacy of 83.5 percent. That’s not up in the 90s like Pfizer, but numbers like that suggest the Sinovac vaccine is more than sufficiently effective for large-scale use. (Remember, “90 percent efficacy” doesn’t mean 90 people wouldn’t catch the virus and 10 would. It indicates “a 90 percent reduction in disease occurrence among the vaccinated group, or a 90 percent reduction from the number of cases you would expect if they have not been vaccinated.” If you had two samples of 100 people, you would not expect all 100 people in the placebo group to catch the disease.)

The bad news is that another large-scale study of the Sinovac vaccine on the other side of the world told a dramatically different story: On January 12, Brazilian scientists “announced that China’s Sinovac vaccine was far less effective than originally touted, at just 50.38 percent effective against COVID-19 in late-stage trials, nearly 30 percentage points lower than initial data showed.”

When two studies research the effectiveness of a vaccine and come back with dramatically different results, researchers start wondering if they measured infections and efficacy differently, or whether one study involved a more contagious and virulent version of the virus than another. Maybe the Brazilian study had a lower threshold for “infected” than the Turkish one did. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the primary goal in fighting COVID-19 is first to avoid death and second to avoid hospitalization to prevent overwhelming the medical system. A vaccine that keeps someone out of the hospital probably is indeed “good enough.”

But in early April, the head of China’s CDC publicly acknowledged that the Sinovac vaccine is just not effective enough, and then quickly backtracked a day later. Over in Cameroon, some health workers said they were reluctant to take the coronavirus vaccines donated by China because they doubt the drug’s efficacy.

The World Health Organization announced a few days ago that it was approving emergency use of Sinopharm, “the first time that any Chinese-made vaccine received emergency authorization from the WHO.” While I enjoy denouncing the WHO as a puppet of the Chinese government as much as the next guy, this decision does fit within the organization’s previously stated parameters of a threshold of 50 percent: “The 50 percent efficacy threshold set for COVID-19 vaccines is because COVID-19 was deemed such a severe disease, that if a vaccine is only 50 percent effective, it’s still worth using.” Even if the Brazil study represented the true efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine, it just barely cleared the threshold at 50.38 percent efficacy.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, our rate of vaccinations has no doubt slowed from the mid April peak, but we’re still averaging more than 2 million per day; nearly 3 million doses were administered Friday. With the Pfizer vaccine now approved for those between the ages of twelve and 15, we’re going to throw another 17 million or so Americans into the eligible pile. It has become somewhat trendy to sneer that we’ve hit the wall of vaccination demand, and that we’re doomed because of vaccine skeptics. Over at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson sizes up the considerable evidence that the government’s pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine represented an irreversible inflection point, noting that average daily vaccinations peaked the very same day of the government warning. Thompson concludes that “the government’s underselling of the vaccines (and overselling of their risks) did not exactly cause the dip, but did make it harder for enthusiasm to bloom among the skeptical.”

Well, the Japanese Are a Famously Patient and Understanding People

Great news, everyone: President Biden has decided to appoint a raging maniac infamous for mailing people dead fish, stabbing tables, and threatening Tony Blair with profanities to one of America’s top diplomatic positions! Sorry in advance, Japan. If we’re lucky, Ambassador Rahm Emanuel will not be the most chaotic and destructive force to hit that country since Godzilla.

ADDENDUM: Up in North Dakota, Rob Port asks the question that should be on everyone’s mind: Gosh, maybe we need more pipelines?

Elsewhere on NRO today, Kevin Williamson lays out the cold, hard, truth:

When the fuel stops moving, then people and goods stop moving in short order. A relatively brief interruption in one pipeline can have severely disruptive effects. To my mind, that means: lay more pipe.

And there are other pipelines that serve some of the areas that depend on Colonial — but not with sufficient capacity to replace what has been taken offline. And so we face the age-old question of pricing risk: Would we rather have more capacity than we usually need and bear the expense that goes along with that, or would we rather have less capacity than we sometimes need and bear the risk that goes along with that?

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