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Vaccines Are China's Golden Opportunity to Regain Global Trust on Health Exports


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A Sinovac lab in Beijing that is producing its Covid-19 vaccine.

A Sinovac lab in Beijing that is producing its Covid-19 vaccine.

Photo: Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

One of China’s main candidates for a Covid-19 vaccine has been stalled in Brazil. This needn’t be a sign that development will be halted—it may even bolster international confidence in China’s medical-export industry over the longer term.

We don’t know for sure why Brazil’s public-health authority has suspended trials of Sinovac’s vaccine, other than citing a “severe adverse event” late Monday. Such circumstances are common in late-stage vaccine development: AstraZenaca’s vaccine experienced a similar delay.

Paradoxically, the holdup could eventually bolster confidence in the vaccine, since it suggests safety is being scrutinized, at least for the overseas clinical trials. China has been criticized by some Western health experts for allowing emergency domestic use of Chinese vaccines before clinical trials were fully completed. Improving the country’s reputation—and record—for health-care exports is important, given the huge role it is likely to play in global vaccination efforts.

This year, high-profile examples of low-quality Chinese pandemic-related products—masks, other protective equipment and ventilators among them—flooded headlines in Western countries and prompted more stringent customs checks by Beijing. For better or worse, that reinforced existing concerns about the quality of some health-sensitive Chinese products.

But the reality is that many types of vaccines will likely be needed. Hundreds of millions of people overseas will likely receive a Chinese vaccine: Any alternative scenario is bleak, since it would probably take years longer to achieve mass production and distribution.

There are other reasons to hope that the Sinovac halt is a brief false alarm. Some Chinese vaccines seem to have a distinct advantage in terms of the logistical difficulties of delivering vaccines to the poorest parts of the world. The Pfizer vaccine that grabbed headlines Monday for its effectiveness must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. Moderna’s challenger must be kept at minus 20 Celsius, an easier requirement, but still below the temperature of many ordinary freezers.

Sinovac says that its vaccine—which is inactivated, meaning it has lost the ability to produce the disease—has remained within effective levels after months frozen between minus 2 and minus 8 degrees Celsius, and even weeks at much higher temperatures.

Researchers behind the vaccine in development by China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and CanSino Biologics suggest their product can also be stored at low subzero temperatures, and can be stored at room temperature for at least one week. In areas of the world with limited laboratory or food-related cold-chain infrastructure, that will be a huge advantage.

Producing quality vaccines for poorer and harder-to-reach parts of the world won’t undo the distrust that has built up between China and many countries in recent years. But it could go some way to bolster its commercial reputation, and provide an example of global cooperation that isn’t just useful, but desperately necessary.

Write to Mike Bird at