After exporting COVID-19 vaccines to almost 70 countries, China is gearing up to push for its own vaccine passport to ease entry to foreigners and foreign residents of China inoculated with China-made vaccines.
Beijing hopes the vaccine passport will be an incentive for businesspeople, including Taiwanese citizens who travel frequently to and from China, to get Beijing-approved jabs. But many eligible for the program worry about the lower efficacy of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines compared with that of vaccines made outside China, and they feel pressured to use Chinese vaccines to obtain entry to China.
The Sinovac vaccine's efficacy rate is slightly higher than 50%, while the Sinopharm vaccine's efficacy rate is 79%, far lower than that of Moderna, Pfizer and even the Russian-made Sputnik vaccine, all of which are above 90%, according to a Bloomberg report citing experimental data from researchers outside China.
China launched full-scale registration of China-made vaccines for foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai at the end of March. Similar provincial-level programs began in April for foreigners concentrated in the cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Chongqing.
In addition, the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council announced on April 14 that Taiwanese citizens who live in China will be allowed to register for a vaccination at their places of residence using their residence permits or a certificate of Chinese health insurance coverage.
Before the current push, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had announced as of March 15 that further "visa facilitation" would be provided to foreign nationals inoculated with China-made vaccines. However, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at that day's press briefing that visitors to China would still need to have negative results from both nucleic acid tests and serology tests before boarding a flight to China. After entering China, the visitors would be required to check in for a two-week quarantine at a government-designated hotel at their own expense.
Zhao also said that China is willing to undertake mutual recognition of vaccinations with other countries. But he declined to comment on whether China would consider accepting and facilitating the WHO-approved Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines in the future. Zhao did not mention the Moderna vaccine.
Anticipating that the vaccine passport will lead to further relaxation of travel restrictions, Vincent Hsu, a Taiwanese citizen who does business in China, said that he and many of his counterparts are open to getting the China-made vaccines.
Hsu told VOA Mandarin, "Because we can get vaccine passports, even if the passports do not apply to the whole world, at least we don't have to quarantine in China. I think that is the biggest incentive. A lot of people want to get vaccinated."
However, due to doubts about the safety and efficacy of China-made vaccines, Hsu said many of his foreign friends in China are willing to pay for the option of getting non-Chinese-made vaccines once they are available in China.
Three Westerners who live in China who were unwilling to reveal their names for fear of upsetting authorities told VOA Mandarin that they were holding off on getting Chinese vaccines and hoping other options would become available soon.
An American citizen told VOA Mandarin that he might wait for a truly quarantine-free vaccine passport to be introduced before considering getting vaccinated. He hoped that China and the U.S. would have mutual recognition of vaccines as soon as possible.
A German national was the only one of the three who told VOA that traveling without quarantine restrictions would be an incentive for businesspeople to obtain Chinese-made vaccines.
She added she would evaluate the safety and efficacy of a vaccine before getting inoculated. She said she preferred to wait for Beijing to import the Pfizer vaccine and would then pay for the shots herself. She added that she was in no hurry to get inoculated because of the lack of data on all the vaccines and the current containment of COVID-19 within China.
In China, Hong Kong is the only region that offers vaccines from both Pfizer and Sinovac. But after a month of vaccinations, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said last week that only about 500,000 people, or 7.5% of Hong Kong's population, have been vaccinated, half of them with Chinese-made Sinovac doses.
According to statistics from the Hong Kong Department of Health, as of April 16, 16 people have died after being vaccinated. Of those, 14 died after being inoculated with Sinovac vaccines. The other two people died after getting the Pfizer vaccine. The Sinovac number includes older people for whom vaccinations were not recommended.
A Taiwanese citizen living in Hong Kong, who did not want to be named for fear of attracting the attention of local authorities, told VOA Mandarin that in Hong Kong, Chinese-made vaccines are popular among people who want to visit family in China or foreigners who travel to China for business.
She said she is scared by the number of Sinovac-related deaths in Hong Kong, a factor contributing to her decision to wait until she can obtain the Pfizer vaccine.
According to the Associated Press, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, immunologist Gao Fu, said on April 10 that the current Chinese-made vaccines have low efficacy rates, and mixing doses is among strategies being considered to boost their effectiveness.
The next day, Gao told the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, that some media and foreign social media platforms had misunderstood his remarks.
His remarks reignited discussions about the effectiveness of China-made vaccines, especially as Gao has not provided data showing how effective the Chinese-made vaccines are against the virus.
Tao Lina of the Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention described the Sinopharm vaccine as "the world's most unsafe vaccine" via Weibo in early January. The post that said the Sinopharm vaccine could cause 73 local or systemic adverse reactions was deleted.
In an interview with VOA Mandarin, Lo Chun-hsuan, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Medical Association, said that as a major exporter of vaccines, China has a responsibility to make clear the safety and efficacy of its vaccines and to produce empirical clinical data, including laboratory data from phase III, for scientific certification.
Risk of COVID-19 variants
Lo said China should neither politicize its epidemic prevention efforts nor block other countries' highly effective vaccines to promote its own vaccines or vaccine nationalism.
He said that if the same 70 countries that have imported vaccines from China increase their vaccination rates, it may not help prevent the disease and instead may lead to variants of the virus due to the ineffectiveness of the Chinese-made vaccines.
Lo said, "There are two things to think about, the first is that mass vaccination will cause the variant virus to spread because the virus is not killed under immune pressure. It's like taking a bottle of insecticide and spraying cockroaches, but the bugs are not killed; instead, they become more resistant to the poison. Less-powerful immune pressure will generate more variants of the virus. (Second), these populous countries will in the future become some of the most difficult regions in the world to prevent COVID-19."
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report, which was originated by VOA Mandarin.