BEIJING (Reuters) – A little-known Beijing museum of urban planning looks set to see more visitors after being converted into a COVID-19 vaccination site as China seeks to ramp up inoculations amid a new upsurge in infections.
“Initially there were a few hundred people a day, and then it reached a peak of 4,000,” said Zheng Hongwei, a doctor at the makeshift vaccination site.
Rising domestic cases are turning up the heat on China to strengthen its pace of vaccination, a campaign that may risk being complicated by a lack of detailed efficacy data and confusion over the varying success rates of one of three home-grown vaccines.
Sporadic cases in December have since spread to multiple provinces, forcing the lockdown of a handful of cities reminiscent of Wuhan in 2020.
While the cases number less than 150 each day, China is worried about the potential for an exponential jump given its densely populated cities and developed transport links.
This week, Beijing, a city of 21 million, is requiring compulsory vaccination for drivers of taxis and cars hired on ride-hailing platforms.
A state-owned enterprise told its employees they must be vaccinated if they want to leave Beijing, said a staffer.
In the first nine days of January, about 4.5 million vaccine doses had been given nationwide, exceeding the roughly 1.5 million given from July to November, Reuters calculations based on official data show. By Jan. 13, more than 10 million doses had been given.
“Current outbreak management in China involves lockdowns which may make vaccination programmes harder to execute as resources used to enforce lockdowns are not available for vaccination activities,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“China is highly populous and it will be a challenge to vaccinate their population in any circumstance.”
The National Health Commission did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
China has set up vaccination sites in hospitals and community clinics as well as stadiums and museums. As of Jan. 9, 25,392 sites had been set up.
“(I) was hesitating whether to take a vaccine shot or not, but with things going down like this, it feels like it’d be better to be vaccinated if I can get one,” said one user on China’s Twitter-like microblog platform Weibo, in discussions about regional oubreaks since January.
Officials say vaccinations have been rolled out in phases, at first in July 2020 with high-risk groups including medical workers and diplomats and then more key groups since mid-December. The elderly and those with underlying diseases, and the general public, will have to wait.
“It takes time to make vaccines and then administer them,” said Benjamin Cowling, a public health professor at the University of Hong Kong.
As of Jan. 4, a unit of Chinese vaccine maker Sinopharm had shipped over 10 million doses domestically, while Sinovac had delivered more than 7 million as of Jan. 10.
Sinovac and Sinopharm have promised capacity to manufacture 1 billion doses each in 2021.
Injecting additional doubt over the rollout, the Sinovac vaccine shows four widely different success rates, ranging from around 50% to over 90% in different trial sites.
For a vaccine with an effectiveness rate of around 50%, even when given to the entire population, a country is unlikely to achieve herd immunity and relaxation of social distancing, Cowling said.
Sinovac has not announced detailed efficacy results combining data from different trial sites. Experts say no meaningful conclusion can be drawn about Sinovac’s efficacy based on fragmentary information from different countries.
Sinovac says the data showed its vaccine is safe and effective.
A unit of Sinopharm said its vaccine showed a 79.34% efficacy rate.
South China Morning Post said China plans to vaccinate 50 million people in key groups before the Lunar New Year holidays in mid-February.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Roxanne Liu; Editing by Giles Elgood)