BEIJING — The poster was not the slickest marketing campaign, but it made its point: “Come Get Your Eggs!!!”
Every person above age 60 who got a COVID-19 vaccine at this community center in Beijing would be entitled to two boxes of free eggs. The deal was part of a nationwide push to raise vaccination rates in a country where successful containment of the pandemic has spurred complacency and a relatively slow vaccination rate despite ample supplies.
Chinese authorities have set a target of vaccinating 40% of its 1.4 billion population by June. As of April 14, nearly 180 million doses had been given out, according to health authorities, though the number of fully vaccinated people that represents is unknown.
To reach their goal, authorities have dispatched community-level workers across the land to knock on doors, broadcast calls on village loudspeakers, and offer perks for the vaccinated.
Free eggs and park tickets have been a common offering in Beijing. In one district of Shenzhen, companies donated 2,500 roast pigeon coupons and free soy milk to lure people to roll up their sleeves. In another, patriotic films were shown to “warm the hearts” of those who got vaccinated.
One reason for China’s initially slower vaccine rollout is its success in stopping the virus’s spread. China has had only a handful of small outbreaks this year, all quickly contained through severe lockdowns and quarantines. Most of the country has been living normally for months with group gatherings, open schools and workplaces, and little sense of urgency surrounding the vaccine.
A degree of skepticism has also arisen around the efficacy of China’s vaccines, which, as part of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy, have been sent to dozens of countries even though the vaccine makers released no public data about their final trials.
Experts on a World Health Organization advisory panel recently said they had seen data from Chinese vaccine makers Sinopharm and Sinovac that met WHO requirements of 50% efficacy and full safety. That data have not been publicly released, but Sinopharm has claimed that its vaccine has 79% efficacy, while Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia have said Sinovac trials in their countries showed a range of 50%-83% efficacy.
On April 10, the head of China’s disease control center Gao Fu startled some in the government when he said at a medical conference that the efficacy of China’s vaccines was “not high” and that they could be improved by adjusting the number of doses, changing the time between doses, or mixing different types of vaccines.
He also stated that mRNA vaccines — the type used by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna — have achieved remarkable levels of immunity and that China should not overlook such technology. It was a scientific observation that immediately turned political. Gao was factually correct: China’s vaccines have a lower efficacy than those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.