Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

China turbocharges bid to discredit Western vaccines, spread virus conspiracy theories

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a news conference in Beijing on Jan. 7.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a news conference in Beijing on Jan. 7. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

“This defensiveness is all certainly against the background of the WHO investigation and a return of China to the media spotlight,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council for Foreign Relations.

After Chinese officials and researchers spent months telling the public its vaccines would win the global development race, Huang added, “there’s now a gap between expectation and reality that needed to be addressed, so you see this effort to disparage Western vaccines.”

Since early in the pandemic, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has avoided discussion of China’s role in the contagion and cast China as a world leader that would help others, particularly developing nations, recover. In speeches, including at the World Health Assembly, Xi has pledged that China would promote global vaccine cooperation.

In state media, the tone has been decidedly less lofty.

An indigenous woman of the Ticuna tribe receives a Sinovac vaccine shot, in Tabatinga, state of Amazonas, Brazil, on Tuesday.
An indigenous woman of the Ticuna tribe receives a Sinovac vaccine shot, in Tabatinga, state of Amazonas, Brazil, on Tuesday. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

After one of China’s leading vaccine contenders, CoronaVac from Beijing-based Sinovac, made headlines last week after Brazilian researchers reported new findings that its efficacy reached only about 50 percent, several state media personalities questioned why the side effects and dangers of Pfizer’s vaccines weren’t also scrutinized.

The nationalist Global Times newspaper ran stories that seized on the deaths of 23 elderly Norwegians who had taken the Pfizer vaccine and quoted Chinese experts who urged countries from Norway to Australia to halt its use.

Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, wrote this week that the Western media was “out to destroy” the reputation of Chinese vaccines and China needed to fight back. Days later, state outlets published photos of leaders, from Indonesia’s Joko Widodo to Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, receiving Chinese vaccines.

In many ways, the Chinese rhetoric mirrors that of state media in Russia, which has touted its homegrown vaccine. Sputnik V, like the Chinese offerings, is traditionally developed with inactivated dead viruses, unlike the mRNA-based vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

For months, Russian officials such as Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct sovereign wealth fund, have suggested that mRNA-based vaccines could damage fertility. Russian state media has bemoaned how Pfizer’s shot has been “imposed on literally everyone.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says studies on mRNA vaccine side effects are ongoing but experts do not believe they pose a specific risk to people who are pregnant. Clinical trials suggest side effects of the Pfizer vaccine include fevers, chills, tiredness and headache. About 9 percent of recipients reported severe adverse reactions, results show.

The Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cluster of cases of the coronavirus emerged, in Wuhan, China.
The Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cluster of cases of the coronavirus emerged, in Wuhan, China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Concerns about mRNA vaccines have sometimes been voiced by the West, but in China they have been a running theme. As U.S. firms released early results in recent months, warnings from prominent Chinese experts have grown to a degree that have surprised observers.

George Gao, the head of China’s Center for Disease Control, recently pondered publicly if Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could cause cancer. Zhong Nanshan, who is considered a national hero for his work on the SARS and covid-19 outbreaks and sometimes speaks on behalf of the government, dismissed Pfizer’s and Moderna’s clinical trials as “very insufficient” in November. China’s vaccines, Zhong added, “are developed with rigor.”

Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who researches China’s health system, said the push to denigrate U.S. vaccines was driven by Chinese nationalism, and doubted it was a concerted government strategy. Chinese factories, after all, have been contracted to produce millions of doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, and it’s still possible that China could buy the vaccine to inoculate elderly citizens because the Chinese vaccines have not been trialed on those over age 59, he said.

“If they really played this up, they could make it very difficult for themselves,” Yang said.

The Chinese expert warnings have been mild compared with state and influential social media, where ominous reports and theories have gained traction.

The Chinese Internet lit up this month after Jin Canrong, a foreign policy adviser to the government, posted an essay by Xiong Lei, a senior state media editor, pointing out that Rumsfeld, through his shareholding as the former chairman of the Gilead Sciences, has profited from Gilead’s antiviral drug and Harvard researchers discreetly collected Chinese farmers’ genetic data in the 1990s.

“It’s not right that we ignore this,” Xiong wrote. “The United States is not without a record of biological warfare.”

People fill forms before receiving vaccines at a vaccination site in Shanghai on Jan. 19.
People fill forms before receiving vaccines at a vaccination site in Shanghai on Jan. 19. (Aly Song/Reuters)

On Tuesday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying pushed the speculation about a U.S. Army biological warfare program. “If the United States truly respects facts, it should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues like its 200-plus overseas bio-labs, invite WHO experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States, and respond to the concerns from the international community,” she said in a briefing.

Some government agencies have appeared happy to stoke the nationalism. Officials in Changzhou, in eastern China, claimed last month that a survey they conducted showed 78 percent of respondents would prefer to take a Chinese vaccine. Just 7 percent said they would prefer a foreign one.

In the minority are a few who have tried to lower the temperature.

Zhou Yebin, a senior researcher at Chicago-based AbbVie who has a large following in China as a science writer, urged Chinese to stop viewing the vaccine race as a “zero-sum game” and worry if the Chinese vaccines can’t compete with Western options. At a forum this week, the chief of Shanghai’s pandemic response, Zhang Wenhong, was asked whether Chinese should opt for a U.S. or Chinese vaccine.

Zhang dismissed the question and said he only wanted to get 80 percent of the population inoculated. “It’s all good as long as you get it,” he said.

Jennifer Huang Bouey, a Peking University-trained epidemiologist who is now a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp in Washington, said in the past week she has anecdotally observed an uptick even in her WeChat circles — comprising highly educated Chinese researchers — of articles, including one by the British Medical Journal’s website, questioning the Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy.

Some Chinese researchers felt Chinese vaccines were unfairly criticized, Bouey said.

“So many people are watching China’s push to reach global standards and it’s so high stakes,” she said. “The pushback and generally the negative views from Western countries make them very insecure.” 

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