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Encore: Do China's COVID vaccines do the job?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

China is in the midst of a huge COVID surge. The country rolled back COVID restrictions last month. Now scientists estimate China could be facing more than 10 million new cases each day. Several hundred thousand people could die over the next few months. But the size of the death toll and the impact of the surge largely depends on one key factor - how well the Chinese-manufactured vaccines work. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: China has used primarily two vaccines. They're called CoronaVac and Sinopharm, and about 90% of the population has received them. Xi Chen is a global health researcher at Yale University. He says there's been a lot of misinformation about these vaccines, and it hasn't just come from social media or even from just inside China.

XI CHEN: A lot of misinformation actually was shared by American media, since I read both Chinese and English media stories, and I see some translations from, like, Fox News and others.

DOUCLEFF: These vaccines aren't the mRNA ones like Pfizer and Moderna manufacture. Instead, they use an older but well-proven technology. They contain an inactivated form of the coronavirus, and the World Health Organization has approved both of them. But Chen says there are many rumors about the safety of the shots.

CHEN: Like vaccination causing cancer and all kinds of issues. And including many of my friends, they are circulating that kind of story.

DOUCLEFF: Other rumors and news stories say the vaccines don't work very well and that China needs an mRNA vaccine to protect its people. But Benjamin Cowling at the University of Hong Kong says that's not the case.

BENJAMIN COWLING: No. We've shown it's not true with our research in Hong Kong.

DOUCLEFF: Cowling is an epidemiologist. And last winter, he and his colleagues had a chance to test a Chinese vaccine head to head with an mRNA vaccine. Omicron was raging through Hong Kong, and many people in the city had been immunized with either Pfizer or one of the Chinese vaccines, CoronaVac.

COWLING: So we used both vaccines widely in Hong Kong with a fairly even split overall between the two vaccines.

DOUCLEFF: This split allowed Cowling to compare how well each vaccine protected people from omicron, especially in terms of hospitalization. For people under age 60...

COWLING: Both vaccines provide a high level of protection against severe COVID. Two doses of Pfizer vaccine or two doses of the inactivated vaccine are very, very good.

DOUCLEFF: Cowling found that older adults needed three shots of the Chinese vaccine. Then both vaccines offered more than 95% protection against severe disease.

COWLING: But that's a very good level of protection. I don't think there's any need to look for improved vaccine technologies. That's not the issue.

DOUCLEFF: The problem instead, he says, is actually getting older people to get the shots. Right now in China, about 20 million elders still aren't fully protected. Jennifer Bouey is an epidemiologist at Georgetown University. She says that problem arose for two reasons. First off...

JENNIFER BOUEY: The initial clinical trial was not done among the elders.

DOUCLEFF: That led to concerns early on that the Chinese vaccines weren't safe for older people. Since then, the vaccines have been tested widely, with dozens of international studies and on tens of millions of people. But Bouey says those initial worries about safety have lingered, even among health care workers in China.

BOUEY: Unfortunately, many of the physicians are not quite sure, you know, the vaccine is safe or not among the vulnerable and the elders.

DOUCLEFF: She says the Chinese government needs to do much more to counter this misinformation and convince people these shots are safe because once the current surge has passed, another one will surely follow.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIDIAN'S "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.
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