The need for clarity on the safety and efficacy of China’s vaccines has taken on more urgency after Sinopharm revealed it had already vaccinated roughly a million people even before the completion of clinical trials. The campaign has alarmed overseas scientists who say it exposes people to undue risks.
Chinese officials have repeatedly assured the public that the country’s coronavirus vaccines are safe, while providing few details. Last month, Liu Jingzhen, the chairman of Sinopharm, said no one among the people who had received the company’s vaccines had experienced any adverse reactions. He said that “only a few had mild symptoms.”
As the coronavirus vaccine get closer to U.S. authorization, here are some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
In October, Zheng Zhongwei, a senior health official, said the government had established a “follow-up program” to track the people who had been vaccinated, though he gave no details.
Sinovac Biotech, a Beijing-based private vaccine maker, has already begun exporting its vaccines to countries like Indonesia and Brazil. Sinopharm, which has another vaccine in late-stage testing, has said it is preparing to deliver 500 million doses worldwide, according to the state-run newspaper Science and Technology Daily.
It is unclear whether the Emirates will start using the Chinese vaccine — which Sinopharm developed with the Beijing Institute of Biological Products — for mass inoculations. The government had already approved the vaccine for emergency use in September for frontline workers at risk of contracting Covid-19.
Some other countries where Sinopharm is conducting trials are counting on Chinese vaccines to help protect their populations. Morocco says it is preparing to vaccinate 80 percent of its adults, relying initially on a Sinopharm vaccine, though it would wait for China to approve the vaccine, according to Médias24, a Moroccan news website.
The Chinese vaccines are also appealing to developing countries because they could be easier to distribute. Sinopharm has said its vaccines need be refrigerated at temperatures of only 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (or 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit) and could remain stable for up to three years. In contrast, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, which are made with genetic materials that fall apart when they thaw, require industrial freezers, making transportation and storage more challenging.