Ethan Zhang needed to get back to work. Work was in Ivory Coast, however, and since January the coronavirus outbreak had stranded the 26-year-old translator in mainland China.
Then friends told Zhang of a way he could get his hands on what might be the world’s most coveted prize: a coronavirus vaccine. Though China’s vaccine candidates have not formally been proved safe or effective, officials have been injecting them into thousands of people across the country, under an emergencyuse policy. One such campaign, his friends said, was underway in the city of Yiwu.
Zhang took a plane to Yiwu from Beijing that night. He stood in line for four hours outside a hospital. He paid $30. He got his shot. And he expressed little worry that the substance is still in the testing phase. “I feel relieved,” he said. “Since they’ve started using it on some people, it shows that there’s a certain guarantee.”
China has made its unproven candidates widely available to demonstrate their safety and effectiveness. Government officials and pharmaceutical executives speak proudly of being inoculated. The campaign has succeeded, perhaps too well. Yiwu’s 500 doses were consumed within hours. But, people could be taking big risks. Those who have taken ineffective vaccines might believe they are safe and engage in risky behaviour. They can be barred from taking a better vaccine because they have already been injected. Unproven vaccines can also cause health risks.
The potential problems often go undiscussed. Copies of the vaccination consent forms for one candidate did not specify that the product was still in testing. It is unclear how many people have received a vaccine candidate. “There’s this trend of ‘everyone is getting it, so I want it, too,’” said Jennifer Huang Bouey, a policy researcher at RAND Corporation.
China’s drive has also taken nationalistic overtones. Wang Mingtao, a staffer in a gold mine firm in Ghana, posted a video on China’s version of TikTok, of people lining up to get the vaccine at the Beijing headquarters of Sinopharm, the state-owned drugmaker, with the slogan: “My country is powerful.” “The country says this vaccine is OK,” he said, “so I think it is better to just take it.”

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