China, the birthplace of COVID-19, was quick to develop a host of vaccines that, it says, are able to combat the coronavirus. In the rubble of the pandemic, while the U.S. and European nations have struggled to vaccinate their own populations, China sensed an opportunity and triumphantly began shipping its homegrown vaccines around the world. The target market was low-and middle-income countries far down the current vaccination pecking order. Beijing often says it doesn’t put political conditions on vaccine delivery, though doses appear to come with a catch—if not now, later. Paraguay, for instance, said it had recently been offered Chinese vaccines contingent upon it breaking ties with Taiwan. But beyond the ethics of vaccine diplomacy, China’s vaccines face a much larger question: Do they actually work?
It seems awfully late in the game to be asking that, but China won’t say, not really anyway, as its major vaccine producers refuse to release data on its late-phase clinical trials that would allow others to assess their efficacy and safety. There are indications that the Chinese-made vaccines—from state-run Sinopharm and privately owned Sinovac, among others—aren’t what they were cracked up to be. Over the weekend, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, tested positive for COVID-19 despite having received the first of a two-dose Chinese vaccination.
There are, of course, reasonable alternative explanations for why this occurred other than the vaccine is bunk, such as the Pakistani health ministry’s assertion that Khan got sick during the window of time before the vaccine boosted immunity to protect against it. But it’s not a great look. The United Arab Emirates is currently trialing administering a third dose of Sinopharm’s vaccine after it didn’t prompt a sufficient antibody response in some cases. Trial results in other developing nations have been mixed, which hasn’t exactly boosted confidence in the Chinese-produced vaccines.
“Vaccine makers usually release details of their Phase 3 clinical trials in peer-reviewed journals before the vaccines gain regulatory approval. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna published theirs in the New England Journal of Medicine in December,” the Washington Post notes. “Sinopharm and Sinovac have self-reported some key results, but they have not published the underlying data in a journal, which would require vetting by third-party experts.” Yet the Chinese government says more than 60 countries have approved at least one of China’s coronavirus vaccines.
Beijing has been cagey about releasing data, though it’s not clear why it would be, other than the obvious. “Fearing embarrassment, Chinese vaccine makers are cherry-picking the data rather than publishing the results in full,” a Foreign Affairs piece in February posited. Seems like a bad time for face-saving. Given China’s less than stellar regulatory history on, well, just about everything, accepting Beijing’s vaccine assurances is quite a leap of faith.