Facing Resistance, China Pushes Back 50 Million Vaccine Target

China has pushed back a target to inoculate 50 million people against Covid-19 by almost two months amid concerns over supply and hesitancy among the population around vaccines, according to people familiar with the matter.

The new plan, which was recently communicated to health officials, shifted the timeline for reaching 50 million shots to the end of March, said the people, who requested anonymity as they’re not authorized to speak publicly. Bloomberg and other media reported in December that China intended to reach that target by the Lunar New Year holiday, which starts this Thursday.

People in key groups, including frontline medical workers, will continue to be the focus of the rollout -- which has seen just over 31 million doses administered as of Feb.3 -- with vaccination then widened to the general population in April, the people said. A representative for China’s National Health Commission said the country is not likely to reach 50 million shots before the New Year holiday, but that “the vaccination process is proceeding as planned.”

One reason for the apparently slower pace is that there is concern Chinese people are distrustful of Covid-19 vaccines, including locally developed ones, due to negative coverage in state media over the side effects and adverse events associated with western vaccines, one of the people said.

Government officials are also worried that there isn’t adequate supply of shots developed by domestic companies, the person said. Capacity constraints are an issue that’s being seen with vaccines developed by U.S., European and Russian firms as well.

Though China has virtually eliminated the coronavirus within its own borders through blitz-testing millions of people and aggressively imposing lockdowns and quarantines, its vaccine drive so far is lagging behind. For every 100 people, China has only delivered a little more than two doses, compared to nearly four in the European Union, 13 in the U.S. and over 60 in Israel, Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker shows.

The comparatively slow pace means China will take about 5.5 years at the current vaccinating speed to cover 75% of its population with a two-dose vaccine, versus 10 months in the U.S. and six months in the U.K., according to the tracker. That raises the prospect that China will trail parts of the world in reopening and normalizing interactions with other countries, keeping its borders shut to protect its population.

In interviews with a cross-section of Chinese people, Bloomberg found there is widespread hesitation toward getting Covid-19 vaccines, for reasons ranging from concern over the safety and level of protection promised by the local shots, to a lack of urgency, with the virus largely confined to winter flareups in parts of the north.

That could pose a problem for nations and companies that need China -- with its more than 1 million overseas students and world-leading consumer market -- to open up, and for the country’s own growth outlook, despite its economic resilience thus far.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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