China Approves an mRNA Covid Vaccine, Its First
The homegrown shot is a crucial tool that China has been lacking — a vaccine based on a technology considered among the most effective the world has to offer.
China has for the first time approved a Covid-19 vaccine based on mRNA technology, greenlighting a homegrown shot months after the ruling Communist Party eliminated its strict pandemic restrictions.
China has long refused to use the foreign-made mRNA shots that were crucial in easing the pandemic in many parts of the world and that the United States first authorized for emergency use in December 2020. Beijing chose instead to promote its own pharmaceutical firms, first in rolling out a more traditional but less effective Covid vaccine, and later, in the pursuit of a homegrown mRNA, or messenger RNA, vaccine.
China’s new mRNA vaccine, developed by CSPC Pharmaceutical Group Ltd., based in the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, was approved for emergency use by China’s health regulator, according to a statement from the company on Wednesday.
Among the vaccines currently available in China, the most widely known are made by the companies Sinopharm and Sinovac. Like other traditional vaccines, they rely on a century-old method for inoculation, which use an inactivated virus to trigger a response by the immune system, and have since proven to be less effective in protecting against symptomatic disease.
The mRNA vaccines use a genetic molecule that assists cells to make proteins that can set off an immune response in the body. While new variants of Covid-19 are increasingly evasive to both traditional and new vaccines, the mRNA technology allows scientists to quickly modify shots to target the new strains.
The new Chinese vaccine comes at a time when the party and its leader, Xi Jinping, are trying to jump-start an economy that had been hurt by some of the harshest Covid-19 restrictions in the world. This month, China reopened its borders to foreign travelers for the first time since 2020, at the start of the pandemic.
For much of the pandemic, Chinese residents lived under the country’s “zero Covid” policy, when unpredictable lockdowns left tens of millions of residents unable to leave their homes for weeks at a time. In major cities, P.C.R. testing was required every one to three days to enter any public space.
The government’s efforts to eradicate Covid were effective at keeping infections at bay, but they led to factory disruptions, job losses and a plunge in consumer spending. The strict restrictions triggered nationwide protests last November, the biggest challenge to Mr. Xi’s authority since he became president in 2013.
China’s handling of the pandemic has come under broader scrutiny as well, with the country facing renewed criticism over its efforts to thwart investigations into the origins of the pandemic. Last week, the World Health Organization accused Chinese officials of withholding research that may link the virus’s origin to wild animals, asking why the data had not been made available three years ago and why it has now disappeared.
With little warning, officials ended the “zero Covid” policy in early December, removing mass testing booths and pandemic protocols virtually overnight.
A Covid outbreak quickly swept the country and overwhelmed ill-prepared hospitals, with deadly consequences. The official death toll in China for the entire pandemic is around 83,000 people. Epidemiologists widely believe the number to be a severe undercount, estimating the true toll to be 1 million to 1.5 million people.
At the height of the Covid wave, some mainland residents ventured across the border to the Chinese territory of Macau to find foreign-made mRNA vaccines. During this time, China also began to widely distribute Pfizer’s Paxlovid, an oral treatment found to significantly cut the risk of hospitalization and death.
As Covid infections recede, many Chinese residents have said they are eager to travel and resume their prepandemic routines. Domestic tourism is booming, and subways in major cities are crowded with commuters.
As of mid-March, the positivity rate among P.C.R. tests in China was below 1 percent, down from a peak of 29.2 percent in late December, according to Chinese government data. The figures have become increasingly unreliable, as officials have stopped regular mass testing and made reporting of home testing voluntary.
Developing its own mRNA shot is a source of national pride and a boon for the Communist Party leadership. Creating an mRNA vaccine from scratch is no small feat, experts have said. The first mRNA shots developed for the virus were built on decades of research by scientists around the world.
Early in the pandemic, China shipped its vaccines to poorer countries around the world, hoping to use them as a way to build allies and repair damaged diplomatic ties. The campaign, however, lost momentum when officials in several countries raised doubts about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines against more transmissible variants.
CSPC Pharmaceutical did not say when the vaccine would be available to the public. Representatives for the company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Until last summer, China seemed to be on track to approve BioNTech, a German mRNA vaccine made in partnership with Pfizer. Then it suddenly changed direction, all but abandoning the approval process for BioNTech.
The delay in recognizing a foreign mRNA vaccine appeared to be part of a deeply political exercise as the country has turned more inward under Mr. Xi, who has encouraged Chinese companies to be self-reliant.
As the pandemic continued, China also struggled to vaccinate its population, particularly its oldest residents.
At a news conference in November just before the country’s Covid restrictions eased, Chinese health authorities said that among people who were 80 and older, about 66 percent were fully vaccinated; only 40 percent had a booster.
As the government pulled back from the “zero Covid” policy, more residents appeared to get vaccinated. Nationwide, about 91 percent have had their first two shots, according to the most recent data.
Zixu Wang contributed research.
Nicole Hong is a reporter covering China. She previously worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she was part of a team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting.