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In coronavirus vaccine race, China inoculates thousands before trials are completed

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China is inoculating tens of thousands of its citizens with experimental coronavirus vaccines and attracting international interest in their development, despite expert concerns over the safety of drugs that have not completed standard testing.

China launched a vaccine emergency use programme in July, offering three experimental shots developed by a unit of state pharmaceutical giant China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) and US-listed Sinovac Biotech. A fourth COVID-19 vaccine being developed by CanSino Biologics was approved for use by the Chinese military in June.

Aiming to protect essential workers and reduce the likelihood of a resurgence, the vaccines are also grabbing attention in the global scramble by governments to secure supplies, potentially helping reframe China’s perceived role in the pandemic.

Beijing has not released official data on the uptake in domestic targeted groups, which include medical, transport and food market workers.

But China National Biotec Group (CNBG), the Sinopharm unit developing two of the emergency use vaccines, and Sinovac have confirmed that at least tens of thousands of people have been inoculated. Additionally, CNBG said it had given hundreds of thousands of doses; one of its vaccines requires an individual receive two or three shots to be inoculated.

Safety concerns

China’s approach runs counter to that of many Western countries, where experts have warned against authorizing the emergency use of vaccines that have not completed testing, citing a lack of understanding about longer-term efficacy and potential side effects.