China Can’t Open Up Like U.S. Despite Vaccination, Official Says

China can’t begin to ease restrictions like the U.S even after inoculating a high level of its population because it has no way of analyzing how well its vaccines have worked in its largely Covid-free population, according to a top health official.

Despite administering more than 40% of its citizens with at least one dose, Feng Zijian, the deputy director General of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said China “has some unique difficulties” and is unable to match the U.S.’s ability to examine vaccine effectiveness in real-time as cases and deaths ebbed.

China has largely eliminated infections -- only one Covid-19 related fatality has occurred in the last 13 months -- and vaccination makes no immediate impact.

“I don’t think we’ve got to that point - if we try to open even when 60% or 80% of population are vaccinated, it could still lead to a severe outbreak,” Feng said Thursday at a conference in the eastern city of Qingdao. “It largely depends on the technical considerations, societal consensus and political concerns,” he said.

Though he did not elaborate on what he meant by technical considerations, it’s unknown if China’s vaccines can prevent onward transmission, and not just serious sickness. Messenger RNA shots made by Pfizer Inc., BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc. can do both, diminishing outbreaks in the U.S., Israel and other places.

Feng’s comment signals that China intends to remain isolated even as other major economies race to open up following large-scale vaccine efforts. After its own lackluster start dogged by hesitancy and some supply shortages, China has now deployed more than 704 million shots, putting the country’s 1.4 billion people on track for herd immunity territory in just a few months.

‘Long Way’

However, officials have no intention of shifting away from its Covid playbook of closed borders, strict quarantine for foreign arrivals, and aggressive lockdowns when flareups return. In contrast, many countries with similar or even lower levels of vaccination have started rolling back restrictions, reviving travel and lifting mask mandates, accepting that Covid-19 is endemic as long as most people won’t get seriously ill thanks to vaccination.

China’s only goal right now is to vaccinate all its citizens, said Feng. “But we haven’t figured out or decided at what rate of vaccination can we adjust containment measures,” he said.

Those considerations may change as more Chinese vaccines become available. Li Yunchun, the chief executive officer of Walvax Biotechnology Co., told Bloomberg on Thursday he expects its mRNA shot to be as effective as the ones already deployed in Western nations. That vaccine will undergo Phase 3 clinical trials in more than seven countries in South America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central Asia, he said.

Existing shots being used in China “still have a long way to go,” in terms of proving their long-term effectiveness at controlling the disease, said Zhang Wenhong, director of infectious diseases at Shanghai Huashan Hospital and an adviser to China’s government on Covid-19.

“I’m hoping China could conditionally resume travel with some countries, but it depends on the vaccination pace,” Zhang said at the conference on Wednesday. “If we do not vaccinate fast enough, we’d be unwilling to open up.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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