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China's vaccines stand prepared to assist much less rich nations, however face belief points

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Chinese President Xi Jinping learns of advances in scientific research into a coronavirus vaccine and antibodies during his visit to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing, capital of China, on March 2, 2020.

Ju Peng | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

As rich countries begin supplying Covid-19 vaccines, some parts of the world may have to rely on China-developed shots to beat the outbreak. The question: will they work?

There is no external reason to believe it is not, but China has a history of vaccine scandals and its drug makers have disclosed little about their recent human trials and the more than 1 million emergency vaccinations, of which they say they have been carried out within the country already country.

Wealthy nations have reserved approximately 9 billion of the 12 billion mostly Western-developed shots expected to be produced over the next year, while COVAX, a global effort to ensure equal access to Covid-19 vaccines, is failing its promised 2 billion doses capacity has reached .

For those countries that haven't yet received the vaccine, China may be the only solution.

China has six candidates in the final phase of trials and is one of the few nations that can manufacture vaccines on a large scale. Government officials have announced a capacity of 1 billion doses over the next year, with President Xi Jinping vowing that China's vaccines will be a boon to the world.

The potential use of its vaccine by millions of people in other countries gives China an opportunity both to repair the damage to its reputation from an outbreak that has escaped its borders, and to show the world that it can be a major scientific player .

But past scandals have damaged people's trust in their vaccines, and manufacturing and supply chain problems have cast doubt on whether it can really be a savior.

"There remains a question mark over how China can ensure reliable vaccines supply," said Joy Zhang, a professor who studies ethics in emerging science at the University of Kent in the UK. She cited China's "lack of transparency over scientific data and a troubled history with vaccine delivery".

Bahrain became the second country last week to approve a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine and join the United Arab Emirates. Morocco plans to use Chinese vaccines in a mass vaccination campaign due to begin this month. Chinese vaccines are also awaiting approval in Turkey, Indonesia, and Brazil, while testing continues in more than a dozen countries, including Russia, Egypt, and Mexico.

Chinese vaccines are viewed with suspicion in some countries. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly expressed doubts about the effectiveness of Chinese company's Sinovac vaccine candidate, without citing any evidence, saying the Brazilians are not being used as "guinea pigs."

Many experts praise China's vaccination capabilities.

"The studies appear to be well done," said Jamie Triccas, director of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Sydney Medical School, referring to clinical trial results published in scientific journals. "I wouldn't worry too much about that."

China has been building its vaccination programs for more than a decade. It has produced successful large-scale vaccines for its own populations, including vaccines for measles and hepatitis, said Jin Dong-yan, a medical professor at Hong Kong University.

"There are no major outbreaks for any of these diseases in China," he said. "That means the vaccines are safe and effective."

China has worked with the Gates Foundation and others for the past decade to improve manufacturing quality. The World Health Organization has prequalified five Chinese non-Covid-19 vaccines that will allow US authorities to buy them for other countries.

Companies whose products have received prequalification include Sinovac and Sinopharm, both leading developers of Covid-19 vaccines.

The Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, a subsidiary of Sinopharm behind one of the Covid-19 candidates, was involved in a vaccine scandal in 2018.

Government inspectors found that the company, based in the city where the coronavirus was first discovered last year, had administered hundreds of thousands of ineffective doses of a combination vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough due to a device malfunction.

In the same year, it was reported that Changsheng Biotechnology Co. had falsified data on a rabies vaccine.

In 2016, Chinese media announced that 2 million doses of various children's vaccines had not been properly stored and sold across the country for years.

Immunization rates fell after these scandals.

"All of my local Chinese friends are employees, they are fine, and none of them are going to buy Chinese-made drugs. That's the way it is," said Ray Yip, former country director of Gates' establishment in China. He said he was one of the few who doesn't mind buying medicines made in China.

China revised its laws in 2017 and 2019 to tighten vaccine storage management and strengthen inspections and penalties for faulty vaccines.

The country's top Covid-19 vaccine developers have published some scientific evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals. However, international experts asked how China recruited volunteers and what kind of follow-up was possible for possible side effects. Chinese companies and government officials have not released details.

After the publication of data on the effectiveness of the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna from Western production, experts are now waiting for the Chinese results. Regulators in the United Arab Emirates that tested a Sinopharm vaccine said it appeared 86% effective based on preliminary data from clinical trials. On Thursday, the Turkish government announced that Sinovac is 91.25% effective according to preliminary data.

Sinopharm did not respond to a request for comment on the vaccine's efficacy data. Sinovac and CanSino, another Chinese vaccine company, did not respond to interview requests.

For some people in countries where the pandemic is showing no signs of easing, the country of origin of a vaccine does not matter.

"I plan to take it, the first one that comes when things go right," said Daniel Alves Santos, a chef at a restaurant in Rio de Janeiro. "And I hope God helps."

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Steven Gregory