A number of Chinese provinces and cities have started giving Covid-19 vaccine boosters to people who received their first two shots at least six months ago.
The roll-out comes after close to 80 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, and as more data shows waning immunity from the inactivated vaccines that are the most commonly used type in China.
Last week, an expert group from the World Health Organization recommended that over-60s given Sinovac or Sinopharm’s vaccines should receive a third shot, although they refrained from calling it a booster.
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“The WHO is a highly conservative organisation and it is only when they have very strong evidence that they would make these strong recommendations,” Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist from the University of Hong Kong, said.
In July, an expert panel recommended the use of BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine as a booster. The vaccine, which reported high efficacy rates in trials, uses advanced mRNA technology and is widely used in the West. However, there was no mention of it in a spate of notices issued by Chinese local regulators about their booster roll-outs.
“The Chinese regulatory agency has not approved BioNTech, which is actually very surprising and very strange,” Jin said.
Details of the roll-out in China vary among provinces and cities and in many places under-60s are eligible to receive the boosters.
In Guangzhou, for example, those aged between 18 to 59 who were fully vaccinated with the Sinopharm, Sinovac, or Cansino vaccines more than six months ago can get a third shot with the same vaccine used for the second shot, according to the official newspaper Guangzhou Daily.
If supplies are running short, the vaccine used in the first dose can instead be used as a booster, but the jabs must use the same technology as the first two vaccines.
A Guangzhou resident said she received a text message on Wednesday from the management office of her residential complex saying that boosters were now available for all.
In Beijing, a broad spectrum of people are eligible for boosters, in addition to high-risk groups. They include people working in retail, manufacturing, education and public facilities.
Some local authorities – including those in Jiangsu province and in the city of Dalian – have said boosters are available to all those who received their second jab six months ago.
In other places, including Hebei and Sichuan provinces, the elderly and high-risk groups are given priority, but the authorities have said boosters are available to those who need them.
Jin said that because of waning immunity, the Chinese authorities “should have done this even earlier, that’s the right direction to go”.
China is the largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines in the world and the largest supplier of vaccines to developing countries. As of last Monday, it had sold 1.3 billion doses and donated 81 million doses to other countries, mostly those made by Sinovac and Sinopharm, according to Bridge consulting which tracks China’s vaccine exports.
But many major overseas buyers, including the United Arab Emirates, have already switched to other vaccines, such as the Pfizer-BioNTech one.
Thailand, which has been using Sinovac as the first shot and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as the second, has said it will stop using Sinovac when stocks run out this month.
Jin described China’s insistence that people must receive a booster from vaccines using the same technology as the previous two shots as “conservative”.
US federal regulators have approved the use of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines as boosters, and allow mixing.
However, it remains unclear how long the immunity induced by the boosters using different technologies will last, though in general the level of antibodies increases substantially after a third shot.
Sinovac has said that a study showed that immunity could be substantially boosted by a third shot of its vaccine.
Experts advising the Hong Kong government are expected to meet next Wednesday to discuss whether boosters should be given in the city, where less than 70 per cent of the population has been vaccinated.
Additional reporting by Guo Rui
More from South China Morning Post:
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