One of China’s leading vaccine developers is working on a plan to inoculate students going overseas with Covid-19 shots that are yet to get regulatory approval, according to people familiar with the matter, as the country pushes scientific boundaries in the race for a viable immunization.
China National Biotec Group Co., or CNBG, a subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm Group Co., is in talks with the Chinese government about giving students headed abroad to study its experimental vaccines, said the people, who asked not to be identified as they’re not authorized to speak publicly. Various government agencies are still working on the plan and no final decision has been made, the people said.
The two shots being developed by CNBG – which are still in the final, third phase of testing – were authorized for emergency use in China and have already been administered to hundreds of thousands of people there, including medical workers and employees of state-owned companies working in high-risk countries. Students would represent an unprecedented expansion in the use of vaccines which haven’t completed full human testing, though the Chinese regulator can determine that the group can come under the remit of emergency use.
“This would indeed be expanding the granted emergency use permit to beyond their intent,” said Nigel McMillan, director of the infectious diseases and immunology program at Griffith University’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland. “While obviously very important to the families and students involved, studying abroad is not an emergency – no lives are at threat here.”
CNBG did not respond to multiple calls and text messages seeking comment, and China’s Ministry of Education also didn’t respond to phone calls.
Student concern about leaving China, where the pathogen has been nearly eradicated through aggressive containment measures, for foreign countries where the coronavirus is still spreading rapidly prompted the discussions, the people said. Infections in the U.S. and Europe are re-surging, while outbreaks across South America and India show few signs of coming under control.
CNBG appears to be trying to gauge interest among the general public for its vaccine candidates, with a link on its website allowing people to apply to receive a shot. It asked for personal details and what city they wanted to receive the injection. More than 154,000 people as of Tuesday morning in China had registered, and a notice at the end of the registration form said that students going overseas could receive the vaccines for free. Later in the day, the weblink seemed to stop working.
The registration exercise is for planning purposes and no actual vaccines have been administered yet to anyone who’s signed up, said the people.
Chinese vaccine developers have been at the forefront of the global race to create an effective immunization against the virus, which has taken on vital importance as countries look to move beyond Covid-19 and fully re-open their economies. Vaccine development processes that usually take years have been compressed into months in many places, encouraged by politicians wanting a quick fix to the pandemic.
Western frontrunners like Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca Plc have temporarily halted their trials in recent months after unexplained illnesses in participants. Sinopharm said in September that it’s observed no adverse reactions in trial subjects that have received its vaccines, which are in final-stage testing in the Middle East and South America.
At a briefing last month, Zheng Zhongwei, an official at China’s National Health Commission, said no serious adverse reactions have been recorded in vaccines used in the emergency use program.
Chinese media reported Tuesday that students — among other groups — were allowed to book appointments for CNBG vaccinations in the cities of Beijing and Wuhan.
Griffith’s McMillan said that dosing non-trial subjects while testing is still ongoing carries risks. “I would suggest this is not only unjustified but unsafe as well,” he said.