Coronavirus: China and US reach 200 million vaccine shots but Beijing up against tight supply

Simone McCarthy
·5-min read

The number of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered by China has topped 200 million, despite supply shortages threatening the country’s goal of giving shots to over half a billion people by July.

The milestone was marked by health officials on Wednesday, the same day US President Joe Biden celebrated reaching 200 million vaccine doses administered in America within his first 100 days in office – double his initial target.

By the end of Wednesday, the US had given more than 215 million doses, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, putting it just ahead of China as the country to have administered the most doses, according to a Bloomberg tally.

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These landmark events come as governments around the world struggle to get enough supplies to protect their populations and the pandemic accelerates, with the World Health Organization reporting on Monday a record high in new weekly infections.

Vaccine inequity between countries remains steep, particularly in recent weeks while a WHO-backed programme to distribute vaccines equitably has faced stark delays because India – which it relied on for much of its supplies – is battling a surge in infections and a shortage of raw materials.

India, with a population of 1.36 billion, has so far administered just over 132 million doses, and on Thursday reported more than 300,000 coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours – a global record.

It sits just behind the US and China for the most vaccines administered, though smaller nations such as Israel have among the highest rates of vaccination, according to Bloomberg. More than 944 million doses have been administered worldwide, with the vast majority delivered to people in wealthier nations.

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In China, which relies exclusively on domestic supply, vaccine makers are racing to add capacity as a top health official predicts constraints in the coming weeks.

“Currently, domestic vaccine supply is relatively tight, but from May, especially after June … the situation will ease significantly,” National Health Commission official Zheng Zhongwei, head of the State Council’s working group for vaccine development, told the China Securities Journal during the country’s annual Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan this week.

At a briefing on the national roll-out on Wednesday, health officials addressed reports that people were finding it difficult to book the second shot of two-shot regimens, which in China can be given up to eight weeks after the first dose.

“All localities must ensure that the second injection can be administered within eight weeks after the first injection,” NHC spokesman Mi Feng said, noting that government allocations took into account both doses.

The pace of vaccinations in China quickened considerably in March at the urging of the central government. The total number of doses given has more than doubled over the past month after a slow start following the first domestic approval of a vaccine in late December.

But at current rates – an average of around 3.3 million doses were administered daily over the past week from Tuesday – would fall short of the target to administer shots to 40 per cent of the population of 1.4 billion before July, according to a South China Morning Post tally.

Yin Weidong, the chairman of Sinovac which makes one of the vaccines being rolled out, also acknowledged supply shortages this week, noting that vaccines were being used almost as fast as they were made.

The company would have the capacity to produce 2 billion doses this year, he said at the Boao Forum on Tuesday.

He added that the company was producing 6 million doses a day, although over 60 per cent of the 260 million jabs supplied by the company to date had been shipped overseas.

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China’s regulator has so far given four vaccines market approval, with a fifth authorised for emergency use. Vaccines by Chinese companies Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino are already in use around the world, with dozens of countries receiving exports from China.

Balancing overseas and domestic demands will remain a challenge for producers in the short term, according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

He pointed to the hundreds of millions of doses that China’s vaccine makers promised in supply deals overseas, the bulk of which have yet to be sent out.

“It’s simple math – domestically [China] needs to vaccinate 560 million people [by July], but they are only vaccinating around three or four million a day, in part because of vaccine hesitancy, but also vaccine shortages,” he said, noting that such constraint should ease in the second half of the year.

Under the present domestic scheme, China’s urban hubs, port cities and border areas are designated priorities in addition to the high-risk workers who were the focus of the vaccine’s initial roll-out. Over 80 per cent of medical workers were now vaccinated, officials said at the NHC briefing on Wednesday.

Vaccinations will continue to be given during the upcoming five-day Labour Day national holiday starting on May 1, according to senior NHC official Cui Gang.

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