Global Health Press

China’s hope for homegrown mRNA vaccine holds back nation

China has not been using the kind of COVID-19 vaccine that has proven to offer the best protection against the virus. The country is working through its biggest coronavirus outbreak yet without a tool it could have started using many months ago.

As early as the spring of 2020, the Chinese pharmaceutical company Fosun Pharma reached an agreement to distribute and later manufacture the mRNA vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech. The vaccine still has not been approved for use in mainland China.

Health experts say that delay could lead to avoidable coronavirus deaths and deeper economic losses. Critics say China has had a policy of putting politics and national pride above public health.

Studies have shown that mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna offer the best protection against hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Chinese vaccines made with older technology proved effective against the early strain of the virus. But the vaccine is much less effective against more recent versions, or variants.

As this evidence became clearer, even countries that first used Chinese-made vaccines have turned to mRNA vaccines for booster shots and new vaccinations.

China still has not. Officials have not publicly said why they have not acted. The mRNA vaccines are approved in much of the world.

The Associated Press spoke with a Chinese health official and another person directly involved in the talks. They said officials have held back because they want to create the technology in China and not depend on foreign suppliers. Neither person gave the AP permission to publish their name.

For more than a year, China’s current approach was acceptable. The country was able to keep the virus in control better than any other large nation with its strict “zero COVID” policy.

But the fast-spreading omicron variant is testing that policy. Now, bigger and longer lockdowns are creating a greater economic and human cost.

Other countries have been able to operate close to normal because their people are protected by vaccination or previous infection. But China must still depend on lockdowns to avoid rising numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.

China may be changing its mind, however. The Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper reported last month that Fosun Pharma is still working with health officials on its approval. And officials in Shanghai recently issued new policies that could permit the import of COVID-19 vaccines.

For now, China is hoping for an mRNA vaccine from Abogen Biosciences. That is a company founded in 2019 by an American-trained scientist who once worked for Moderna.

The company’s vaccine candidate was successful in a small test in humans designed to measure safety, said a study that appeared in the publication Lancet Microbe. But large studies are needed to show whether the shot works to prevent infections. Such studies have not been completed.

Even if the studies can be completed and the vaccine proves effective, experts say it will be difficult to produce all the shots that China needs. Abogen built a manufacturing facility in December 2020 that can produce up to 120 million doses a year.

By Dan Novak, who adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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