China’s new health strategy raises safety and ethical concerns as some cities offer experimental vaccines that are in the final stages of studies but have not yet been approved.
China has rapidly increased the number of people receiving its experimental coronavirus vaccines. One city offers one to the general public and a biotech company offers another free vaccine to students going abroad.
The city of Jiaxing, south of Shanghai, offers a vaccine that Sinovac is developing, it said in an announcement on Thursday. It says that high-risk groups, including those “responsible for the city’s basic operations”, will be given priority, but residents with emergency needs will also be able to register.
The vaccine is in the final stages of clinical testing but has not yet been approved. The city government said it will be made available under an emergency permit.
China National Biotech Group, another Chinese vaccine company, is offering its vaccine to students studying abroad for free. Health professionals raise safety and ethical concerns, experts say.
More than 168,000 people signed up for the vaccine through an online survey and more than 91,000 are being considered, CNBG said on its website. This page had been removed by Tuesday.
Chinese drug companies have five vaccines in final testing, but none are approved for public use. You are part of a global race to develop a vaccine that, if successful, would offer the emerging Chinese industry the potential for prestige and global sales.
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Senior Chinese health authorities promised a vaccine to the general public before the end of this year.
CNBG’s vaccine has already been given to medical workers and employees of Chinese companies who have been sent abroad as part of an emergency permit for people in risk categories. According to a company executive, the vaccine was given to 350,000 people outside of its clinical trials. About 40,000 people are enrolled in the studies.
“Currently, Chinese students going abroad seem to have a strong desire to take the vaccine,” a CNBG official was quoted as saying by a state newspaper. the paper, based on September poll results.
Students in China about to begin their semester abroad say they want the vaccine because they are worried about getting sick.
“It’s very dangerous over there, the city where we study, it’s a red danger zone,” said a student who goes to school in Poland and only gave her surname Ouyang. She signed up for the CNBG vaccine in September but haven’t heard from it. “We all really want this vaccine.”
A college student scheduled to go to the UK said she signed up using the online link after classmates said they received the vaccine.
The student, who would just name her English name Sally, said she heard in September that the vaccine was available to people like her. She said other students said she may need to travel to Beijing, the state capital, or Wuhan, where the outbreak occurred in December, to get the vaccine.
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“Wrong feeling of security”
If the vaccine works, it could help protect students heading to Europe or the US, where the pandemic is still raging, medical experts said. But they said developers need to make it clear it has not been proven and keep track of what happens to the people who get it.
When the vaccine doesn’t work, “it gives people a false sense of security,” said Sridhar Venkatapuram, a bioethics specialist at King’s College London’s Global Health Institute.
The ruling Communist Party declared the coronavirus under control in March, but warned that the risk of a new outbreak was high. Travelers and visitors to public buildings will continue to be screened for signs of infection. People arriving from abroad must be quarantined for two weeks. The country has reported 4,634 deaths and 85,622 confirmed cases.
This week, 10 million people were tested in the eastern port of Qingdao after 12 cases were found last weekend, the government said on Friday. This ended a period of almost two months in which no local virus transmissions were reported within China.
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Final phase of clinical trials
It was unclear whether Chinese students were offered the CNBG vaccine under the same emergency permit as Jiaxing residents.
The National Medical Products Administration, the drug and vaccine approval agency, did not answer any faxed questions. CNBG did not respond to a request for comment.
The final phase of clinical trials, conducted in larger groups, identifies rare side effects and examines the effectiveness of a treatment. The first and second stage studies are designed to determine whether a vaccine or treatment is safe.
“The manufacturer has an obligation to obtain follow-up information from anyone who receives a vaccine in an emergency,” said K Arnold Chan, an expert on drug regulation at National Taiwan University, in an email.
Not to do so “is irresponsible and does not conform to international standards,” he wrote.
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“Providing protection to the citizens”
According to the Ministry of Education, more than 600,000 Chinese students were studying abroad before the pandemic. They make up a large part of the overseas student body in the US, UK, Australia and a few other countries.
Western universities “don’t protect their students,” said Venkatapuram. “The company generally offers protection to its citizens outside of China, which is essentially what any country would ideally do.”
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