Cai’s province, Zhejiang, opened access to the vaccine this month to high-risk groups. With her semester’s classes beginning in Milan, Cai applied.
“Of course, I had misgivings in the beginning,” she said, video-chatting from a coffee shop this week in her hometown, Shaoxing. “But on second thought, I figured that the vaccination risk should be far lower than traveling to a hot-spot country. The vaccine would at least provide better protection.”
Beijing has taken an immense gamble in rolling out coronavirus vaccines before they are confirmed safe and effective. Hundreds of thousands of people have already received vaccine shots, state media reported last month. If serious side effects emerge, China’s government could face backlash at home and abroad.
But if Beijing’s bet pans out, China will potentially be months ahead of Western nations in eradicating the virus. And those like Cai will be a walking reminder, jet-setting through the pandemic.
Cai said she experienced no side effects when she got the first of two shots of the vaccine from Sinovac Biotech last week. She’s waiting for the second shot next month before flying to Italy.
In China, only Zhejiang province is officially providing the vaccine to the public now, although discreet urgent-use distribution is underway across the country. Access will be formally expanded to high-risk groups nationwide as early as December, China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s chief biosafety scientist Wu Guizhen told state television last week.
Four experimental vaccines made by three companies — Sinovac Biotech, Sinopharm and CanSino Biologics — are in urgent use while clinical testing continues.
China’s strategy is widely criticized by public health experts in the West.
“Offering an experimental vaccine without definitive evidence of safety and effectiveness currently represents a substantial danger to the people of China,” said Howard Koh, who was assistant secretary of health under President Barack Obama and is now a professor of public health at Harvard University. “Demonstrating the highest levels of scientific rigor in completing Phase 3 vaccine trials is absolutely mandatory now for upholding the future of public health.”
For those who have mainly watched the coronavirus response in the U.S. context, China can seem like an alternate reality.
When a new coronavirus cluster emerges, entire cities — millions of people — are rounded up for testing, as occurred in Qingdao and Kashgar this month.
And while there are murmurs about the safety of rushed vaccines, these are largely drowned out by the patriotic drumbeat of state media, which declares that taking a shot of an experimental vaccine is a contribution to the nation and the world.
Cai said she is relieved to have gotten the vaccine before traveling to Italy, which is experiencing a surge in virus cases. It doesn’t get her out of Italy’s quarantine requirements, but it gives her peace of mind. She spent the first months of this year as a student in Sweden, where, to her dismay, the government took few measures to control the spread of the virus.
“No one was wearing face masks,” she said.
In Cai’s city of Shaoxing, a manufacturing center of 4.5 million people on the east coast, the public health bureau announced the vaccine availability last week, recommending it for people between ages 18 and 59 in high-risk groups.
This is different from clinical trials. In Beijing, Wang Ying, a 42-year-old employee of a state-run bank, says she received the vaccine free in a Sinopharm clinical trial, which required her to send daily health updates.
Cai, who got the vaccine for urgent use, had to pay about $68 for the two shots and service fees. She does not need to provide health updates.
For clinical trials and urgent use, spots are limited. Wang said her boss, who had connections at Sinopharm, helped her sign up. Cai said she rushed to apply after her uncle, a medical worker, told her the program had begun.
Wang said she felt some remorse after realizing some others in her trial had urgent reasons to travel overseas, while she did not.
“I thought to myself, maybe I have taken up someone else’s quota,” she said. “There must be others who needed the vaccine more than me.”
Chinese authorities have cautioned that supply is limited. Priority is going to doctors and nurses, delivery workers, overseas workers and others with particular employment needs.
Gao Fu, chief of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a conference last month that there was no need for universal vaccination at the moment.
“This is a question of balancing the risks against the benefits,” he said.
Wang said even though she got the vaccine, she might wait for more trial results before vaccinating her 10-year-old daughter.
“If one day the schools start to organize it, then I’ll feel more at ease,” she said.
While waiting for her second dose, Cai began her Milan program on sustainable energy remotely. She says Europe’s pandemic response has given her second thoughts about staying there long-term.
“Everything changed,” she said. “Now I will probably come back to China after finishing my studies and find a job here.”
Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.