China rolls out Covid-19 vaccine nationwide - but is it safe?

Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

There are hundreds of thousands of people in China who believe they are safe, if not immune from Covid-19.

But before you think they're lucky, you might want to consider that the vaccine they have been given has not yet been fully tested.

All three of the vaccines sanctioned by the Chinese government for emergency use are still undergoing clinical trials in other countries.

And on Tuesday, concerns were raised about the risk of prematurely allowing the public to take these products when it was confirmed a volunteer in Sinovacs Stage 3 trials in Brazil had died.

The Brazilian authorities, the Chinese government and in a statement from Sinovac, it was confirmed the death was unrelated to the vaccine, but it has put the spotlight on what has for all intents and purposes become a mass rollout of the vaccines in China.

China has been rolling out vaccines to key workers nationwide. Credit: AP

The emergency legislation was enacted in July and initially government officials, frontline workers, medical professionals were given priority for inoculations, but now even students planning to study abroad have been able to receive vaccinations.

This week a notice went out in Beijing saying commuters, kitchen staff, security workers, housekeepers, and the elderly who are in good health could now apply to get vaccinated.

State employees are being offered the vaccinations through government channels, everybody else must apply through their local health board and will be given the vaccine based on what they do for a living, their risk of getting the virus and vaccine supplies in their area.

China currently has 13 vaccines undergoing clinical trials, four of them at the advanced and final stage of human trials.

However due to the lack of Covid19 cases in the country, those tests are taking place in other countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey.

It is during that final phase of the process that volunteers are used to check the safety of the product, before it is given approval to be used on the general public. 

With Covid-19 the world is clearly facing an unprecedented situation and that was the justification used by the Chinese government to enact emergency laws to begin administering three of its vaccines before their overall safety and effectiveness is known.

The people we spoke to in Yiwu said they trusted that what they were being given was safe.

Most Chinese people are confident they are protected from coronavirus. Credit: AP

There have been no reports of any adverse reactions to the vaccines in China and although there has been some criticism of the public being used as guinea pigs, the vaccines are being given on a voluntary basis and hundreds of thousands of people are signing up as soon as they are given the opportunity.

Apart from being asked to stay at the clinic for 30 minutes after receiving their dose of the vaccine – a bit like you do after giving blood – there is no formal monitoring system in place for those being given these trial treatments.

They are just told to contact the clinic if they go on to develop any symptoms in the future. 

For China to continue expanding its rollout of these unapproved vaccines it must be confident in their safety, if not yet able to guarantee their long-term efficacy and the length of protection they provide.

The country has set the target of producing 600 million doses of its vaccines by the end of this year, and enough to the entire population of 1.4 billion people by the end of next year. 

To many, this will appear a determined attempt to finish the pandemic, from the country where it started.