How I Got Caught Up in the Great Vaccine Race

As China, the United States, and other nations roll out their COVID-19 cures, it’s hard to know where to get the jab.

A student receives a dose of the China National Biotec Group COVID-19 vaccine.
A student receives a dose of the China National Biotec Group COVID-19 vaccine at a college in Wuxi, China on March 30. STR/AFP via Getty Images

BEIJING—On March 24, a neatly printed announcement appeared on the doors of my Beijing apartment building. “The registration for COVID-19 vaccination in Xiushui Community of Jianwai Street has started,” it said, explaining how foreign citizens and their families can register to get a jab. I promptly asked myself the question that millions around the world have pondered this past year: Am I finally going to get vaccinated against COVID-19?

But when living in China, one also tends to add this question: Should I get vaccinated? For medical reasons, the hospital where I get my health checkups says yes, I should. But COVID-19 seems to have retreated so thoroughly—on Monday China reported no new locally transmitted cases and just eight “imported” cases, referring to people testing positive after arriving from abroad—that life is back to a sort of normal. For the future, though, I wonder if getting vaccinated here and now might lead to hassles when I start traveling in the West again. 

Problem is, none of the Chinese vaccines have been granted full approval by the World Health Organization (WHO) because Chinese suppliers have not made full data about their Phase 3 clinical trials public. Domestically, authorities began inoculating some residents, on an emergency basis, even before Phase 3 trials were completed. This doesn’t prove Chinese jabs are unsafe or ineffectual. It just means we don’t know much. When it comes to vaccines—many comprised of inactive COVID-19 viruses—recipients usually want to know more about what’s being injected and what its efficacy level is.

China’s lack of transparency—and its rush to distribute and inoculate as many people as possible—is unconventional by international standards. Without more information, the WHO and other entities might balk at granting full regulatory approval to the vaccines–this could slow Beijing’s diplomatic push to forge a new “Health Silk Road” overseas. More importantly for the individual consumer, this also could mean hassles if recipients try to get Western “vaccine passports” that will open borders and speed up entry procedures for those with the proper credentials and jabs. 

Welcome to the “Great Vaccine Race,” which, in many respects, is just another dimension to the competition between China and the United States. By late February, China had agreed to provide inoculations as part of its “foreign aid” to nearly 70 countries and to sell them commercially to nations from Pakistan to Serbia to the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the United States has provided funding to the international vaccine alliance called Gavi, promised millions of doses to Mexico and Canada, and spearheaded an initiative with allies Australia, India, and Japan—the so-called Quad—to produce 1 billion doses for countries in the Indo-Pacific, literally in China’s backyard.

Then there is vaccine swag—inducements to use China’s version. In Beijing, I’ve heard of people snagging grocery coupons when they get jabs. (Comparatively more innovative are the Krispy Kreme glazed donuts and marijuana joints offered to some U.S. recipients.) However, the government is dangling a potentially much more valuable prerequisite for expatriates living and working in China: After restricting many foreign nationals from entry for more than a year, Chinese authorities said in mid-March that expatriates and their family members who’ve been injected with a Chinese vaccine would enjoy visa “facilitation.”

That may not mean much for those who never want to come to China. But for those whose livelihoods depend on being there or whose families are stuck outside of China, it could be a game-changing event. (In 2020, I was stranded unexpectedly in the United States for eight months due to pandemic-related visa and travel restrictions.) One regular trans-Pacific traveler is Shawn Hu, a U.S. citizen who represents Utah in implementing collaborative agreements with Chinese provinces. “I just got the second dose of a Chinese vaccine two weeks ago,” he said. “For me, it’s a question of which vaccination makes it easier for me to travel to China for my work.”

So if I receive a Chinese jab—and then, say, fly overseas later this year—I might have a better chance of receiving a visa to return to Beijing. However, there’s no guarantee a Chinese vaccine would help me get into any Western country with less hassle or qualify me for a “vaccine passport” recognized in the West. 

Travel industry experts say such credentials, either digital or physical, will be the new “golden ticket” for international travel once COVID-19 recedes. More than a dozen Western governments and entities are already exploring tech solutions with names such as CommonPass, which is backed by the World Economic Forum, the International Air Transport Association’s TravelPass, or the European Union’s Digital Green Certificate. The Biden administration has also begun studying the intricacies of a public-private collaborative “vaccine passport” initiative. Widely accepted credentials of this sort seem inevitable, but so far, “execution has been sorely lacking,” Jeffrey Goh, who heads the 26-carrier Star Alliance, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

The U.S. vaccine campaign has also kicked into high gear. U.S. President Joe Biden announced 200 million Americans would be inoculated by the end of his first 100 days in office—double the original goal. His predecessor, Donald Trump, had downplayed the intensity of the pandemic and squandered opportunities to save lives. Now Biden’s making up for lost time and is on track to fulfill his target. An average 2.5 million jabs have been administered each day in the United States. 

It’s also hard to miss the whiff of Sino-U.S. competition in Chinese media reports. The U.S. had administered 130 million doses as of Mar 30, compared to China’s 100 million, reported the Global Times, predicting the number of doses administered by China is very likely to surpass that of the U.S. by mid-April because “China now is just 30 million doses behind the U.S., ranking second in the world in terms of vaccines administered.” The newspaper also ranked both sides in terms of production capacity and vaccine-related supplies: “China and the U.S. are in a race to scale up production…with China in urgent need of vaccine bottles and the U.S. crying for almost everything from vaccine bottles to syringes and needles.”

Winners in the vaccine race will include not only those who manage to inoculate their own citizens safely and quickly enough to approach herd immunity but also to those who can export enough vaccines to claim victory in terms of diplomacy and soft power. Extra kudos and clout will go to those governments that quickly design a widely used means of verifying who’s gotten the jab—the so-called “vaccine passport.”

Beijing ramped up its massive vaccination campaign in late March. Its goal is to inoculate 40 percent of China’s population of 1.4 billion people by the end of June. In one day alone last week, more than 6 million people received a jab. The average number of vaccinations will skyrocket to more than 10 million doses a day to meet the June deadline in the “world’s fastest vaccination drive,” trumpeted a recent headline in the Global Times, which often reflects nationalistic opinion.

China is hoping its vaccine drive will underscore Beijing’s rapid post-pandemic economic recovery—and also eclipse criticism of its early mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, which has exacerbated the steady deterioration of Sino-U.S. ties. Recent findings by a WHO team that visited Wuhan to research the origins of COVID-19 revived strident rhetoric surrounding the unproven theory that COVID-19 leaked out of a Chinese virology lab—an “extremely unlikely” scenario, according to the WHO report, which found animals to be the most probable origin. But U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced concerns about the report’s “methodology and process,” including the fact that the “government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.” A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson suggested the United States was trying to “exert political pressure” on the WHO.

Things are getting prickly in Europe too. After discovering that the United Kingdom had received 10 million doses of EU-made vaccines recently—while exporting none—European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened to stop vaccine exports to countries with a less urgent need, as a warning to the United Kingdom and United States. Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, criticized her for triggering a “stupid vaccine war.”

Beijing’s bid to both restore its reputation after COVID-19 and be seen as the “Great Healer” rather than the “Great Infector” also serves to divert attention from other troubling diplomatic issues, including tit-for-tat sanctions over reported human rights abuses in Xinjiang and saber-rattling over Taiwan. Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was photographed a second dose of the vaccine produced by the Chinese developer Sinovac. Her aim was to “boost public confidence amid rumors smearing the safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” said the official Chinese media in an apparent reference to reports of side effects, such as a case of temporarily disfiguring Bell’s palsy, which affected one male resident after he got a Chinese jab.

And while shuttling through the Middle East on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the United Arab Emirates and launched a planned joint-venture facility to produce 200 million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine annually. The previous week, Zimbabwe’s president was photographed getting a Chinese jab at Victoria Falls. Pakistani President Imran Khan also received his first injection of the Sinopharm vaccine around the same time; two days later, he tested positive for COVID-19. Pakistan has long had a relationship with China, and not surprisingly, Pakistani authorities stressed that Khan must have been infected before getting the jab and two days is too soon for any vaccine to become effective. They warned against “vaccine stigmatization.”

Many of China’s vaccine partners are also taking part in its ambitious Belt and Road (BRI) initiative, and in January Foreign Minister Wang Yi conducted a roadshow through four Southeast Asian countries involved in BRI projects to link Sinovac vaccine shipments with fresh loans and infrastructure grants. The newest hot topic in this global Great Game however focuses on “vaccine passports”—who will design them, based on what criteria, and how many might be left out? How to make such systems talk to each other while still protecting users’ privacy moreover remains a huge challenge. And whether the Chinese government—often criticized for its Big Brother-style surveillance techniques—and its vaccines would be part of such a scheme is a big question.

In the face of all these uncertainties, I decided to Google “what happens if you get more than one type of COVID-19 vaccine?” As I discovered, the New York Times has reported on the tantalizing possibility that a pair of different vaccines might work better than two doses of the same one—a process called heterologous prime-boost.

In the end, I decided to get my jab in Beijing. I’ll let you know how it turns out. 

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.

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