The Chinese government has a mission: to convince elderly citizens that its latest Covid-19 vaccines are easy to take and effective.
In public media, a woman at a clinic in Tianjin said “there was no discomfort” with a new inhaled vaccine, while a woman in Shanghai joked that receiving her booster was “a bit like drinking milk tea”. A Wenzhou man reassured the hesitant, “It doesn’t hurt at all, and it’s a little sweet.”
Such state-sponsored messaging is essential as the Chinese government abandons its onerous Covid restrictions and prepares for a surge in cases that could overwhelm its medical resources. He must not only convince people that the virus is not to be feared, but also that vaccines are essential to protect against the most serious consequences of the disease. The epidemics in the weeks and months to come – and their degree of mortality – depend in part on the willingness of older people to be vaccinated.
Since its dramatic about-face to dismantle its “zero Covid” strategy last week, China has downplayed the severity of the Omicron variant spreading through cities, essentially encouraging the country to learn to live with Covid. A top epidemiologist noted on Sunday that the death rate is similar to that of the common flu. Another health expert said authorities were prepared for the strain on the country’s medical system.
On Monday, China reported 8,561 new local cases, down from around 30,000 before the change in strategy. The figures have become increasingly unreliable as authorities have all but halted regular mass testing in recent days and made home testing reports voluntary.
Uncertainties about the new approach and the hasty return of the rules are growing.
Among the oldest segment of the Chinese population, 40% did not receive a booster; the World Health Organization said such doses are especially vital with Chinese vaccines, which use inactivated virus and are generally less effective than their foreign counterparts which use newer mRNA technology. And many families are still hesitant about the safety of vaccines for their elder relatives, even as new inhalable vaccines are touted as less scary than those that require a needle.
Health experts warn that the vaccination campaign may be too late to defend against the current wave of cases. Singapore, where authorities lifted the strict measures late last year, spent months communicating and preparing before easing the measures.
Hong Kong authorities neglected to encourage its elderly population to get vaccinated until it was in the midst of a major outbreak earlier this year. Without a high level of inoculation at the time, the virus killed people at a rate that has surpassed nearly every country since the pandemic began.
“Ideally, you would be prepared before you open the doors,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s really not a recipe for a smooth transition – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
As China’s authoritarian government faced rare and furious protests against its Covid restrictions, policymakers launched a new vaccination campaign two weeks ago targeting older citizens, a tacit acknowledgment that to loosen the rules, they needed to do more to protect the most vulnerable.
Officials pledged to bring vaccines to nursing homes, go door-to-door and use mobile stations. They quickly rolled out a newly approved inhaled vaccine, touting it in a steady stream of TV reports, newspaper articles and local health fact sheets as “easy”, “convenient” and “like breathing in water”. fresh air”.
Understand what is happening in China
Officials must overcome a deep-seated skepticism they helped instill.
In early 2021, when China introduced its national vaccine, regulators limited use to people aged 18-59, inadvertently fueling misinformation and hesitation within one of the most vulnerable segments. Population.
“It caused a storm of people saying it was not safe for the elderly,” said Siddharth Sridhar, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “They’re pretty keen to avoid that narrative right now.”
Many families have urged older relatives to stay home, believing vaccinations could complicate chronic health conditions. Temporary vaccination clinics were hesitant to vaccinate seniors because facilities did not have their health records on hand. Neighborhood health workers and family members questioned whether it was worth risking potential side effects when cases were essentially non-existent in many cities.
Nicolas Tian, 24, urged his grandparents not to get vaccinated, citing concern over authorities limiting doses to younger populations.
“At first, people generally thought that people over 60 were not suitable candidates for vaccination,” said Mr Tian, who lives in Shandong province in northeastern China. country. He got vaccinated, but only because his government job required it.
Many public sector workers were among the first groups to get vaccinated at a time when doses were still limited. While his employer called it an advantage, Mr. Tian was not convinced.
“We all knew it treated us like lab rats, or at least I personally took it that way,” he said.
When his workplace later recommended that each employee find five people to vaccinate, he felt that authorities had changed the requirements in a hurry to increase the vaccination rate. He strongly discouraged family members from getting vaccinated.
“Although the authorities said there was no harm in getting vaccinated, the popular thought was that it was better not to vaccinate the elderly.”
Since the approval of Chinese vaccines, authorities have provided little information other than to assure the public that they are safe.
Authorities recently approved six national vaccines, including four last week. Two of the vaccines do not require a needle and are instead administered through a nasal spray or inhaled through a nebulizer, technology seen as the frontier for future Covid prevention.
Health experts and doctors quoted in state media have embraced inhaled vaccines, saying they are effective, safe and suitable for older populations, without providing detailed data.
“The most obvious benefit of the inhaled vaccine is that it reduces the fear of injection,” Zhang Xin, a medical worker, told the official Xinhua newspaper about Convidecia Air, a Covid vaccine developed by CanSino Biologics. which was approved in September. .
Scientists hope that by inducing an immune response in the nasal passages and lungs, an inhaled vaccine could offer significant protection, especially against transmission. In reality, little is known about the actual effectiveness of new inhaled vaccines, which are being studied around the world but have not been widely tested.
Early studies indicate their potential power in the fight against serious diseases. A nasal spray developed by the University of Hong Kong, in collaboration with Xiamen University and Wantai Biological Pharmacy in Beijing, has been shown to be 80% effective against Omicron as a booster after two doses of inactivated vaccines and effective 55% in unvaccinated people.
Even without complete information, the prospect of a tsunami of cases to come was enough to spur action.
Mary Ma’s grandmother is nearly 90 years old and has already had two injections. Ms Ma, who lives with her grandmother and mother in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in 2019, worries about the adverse effects on the elderly. She is also worried about inadvertently exposing her grandmother to Covid by taking her for vaccinations, as she said the hospitals designated for vaccinations are the same ones that treat Covid patients.
But Ms Ma, 24, said she recognizes being up to date on vaccinations is more important than ever now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
“Even though my grandmother stays home most of the time, I’m still worried about the risk of our younger family members bringing the virus home,” Ms Ma said.
“I think she should get vaccinated,” she said.