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What China’s Speedy COVID Vaccine Deployment Means for the Pandemic

In the race for a coronavirus vaccine, China is making bold promises. A Chinese health official has publicly pledged that an effective coronavirus vaccine will be available by the end of the year. The country has also committed to sharing its vaccines with more than a dozen nations, particularly low-income countries that it has close ties with. But even if a vaccine is ready soon, some scientists question whether the country will be able to produce enough doses to meet its international commitments, and if deals with individual countries are the best way to ensure equitable vaccine distribution.

Wu Guizhen, the chief biosafety expert at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, told Chinese state media last month that two vaccines developed by Shanghai pharmaceutical group Sinopharm will be available in November or December. The vaccines are being tested in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Peru and Argentina.

On 9 October, China also announced that it had joined COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX), the collaborative effort by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, together with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the WHO, which is aiming to provide 2 billion doses of vaccine to the most vulnerable people and to health-care workers, especially in poor countries. Some 80 wealthy ‘self-funding’ countries have committed to support the initiative, with the notable exception of the United States. It is not clear yet whether China will commit money or vaccines, and how much.

Chinese vaccine makers have developed four of the roughly dozen leading candidate vaccines that are in the final stages of testing worldwide. No vaccine has yet completed the crucial phase III trials that are needed to firmly establish safety and efficacy. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of people in China and abroad being injected with one of the four Chinese vaccine candidates under policies known as emergency-use authorization. The vaccines include those developed by Sinopharm, plus a jab developed by Beijing-based vaccine maker Sinovac and another by CanSino Biologics in Tianjin.

Scientists say the country’s drug regulator, which is part of the Ministry of Health, needs to wait for robust trial data that shows the vaccines are safe and effective before granting vaccines full approval.

In an e-mail to Nature, Wu said that the health ministry will await the results of large trials before approving them for sale. “Until then, there are still uncertainties,” she says.

Outside China, expectations are high that a successful Chinese vaccine will soon be available. Sinopharm’s large-scale trials in Argentina, which started last month, have received widespread media coverage, says Eduardo Spitzer, the scientific director of Laboratorio Elea Phoenix in Buenos Aires, which is organizing the trial. “We are working as fast as possible, but without losing quality in the data obtained from the trials.”

Demand and supplies

China’s leader Xi Jinping told the World Health Assembly in May that its vaccines would be a “global public good”, and the list of countries with which China has promised to