Checking Up On Health: April 12, 2021

Medical Monday: A weekly post of healthcare- and technology-related policy news, views and commentaries.

Now that the Trump administration is gone, it seems it’s once again OK to mention COVID-19 and China in the same breath.

You may recall the virus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, and spread across the world. According to Worldometer, more than 137 million people have been infected by COVID-19 since it was first reported by China in December 2019; the death toll is closing in on 3 million.

Mainland China has reported just 4,636 deaths among a total of 90,426 cases in its population of 1.4 billion. Yet Radio Free Asia, citing analysts, reported in February that “Chinese government figures showing the absence of more than 150,000 elderly people from the list of those given state subsidy payments in the first quarter of 2020 could point to a far greater COVID-19-linked death toll than previously reported in the country.”

President Trump was criticized for calling it the “China virus” and “Wuhan virus;” some anti-China outlets called it the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus. You may recall the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization (WHO) last year, accusing it of being beholden to China.

There were theories that COVID-19 spread from an animal at a “wet market” in Wuhan that sold exotic live animals for human consumption. There were rumors that the outbreak was the result of a virus escaping from a lab in Wuhan where scientists had been conducting experiments.

As an article reports in MIT Technology: “More than a year after COVID-19 began, no food animal has been identified as a reservoir for the pandemic virus. That’s despite efforts by China to test tens of thousands of animals, including pigs, goats and geese, according to Liang Wannian, who leads the Chinese side of the research team. No one has found a ‘direct progenitor’ of the virus, he says, and therefore the pandemic ‘remains an unsolved mystery.’”

More questions are being raised about the origins of the virus. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken criticized the Chinese government for its lack of transparency in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” and called for a more thorough investigation into the origins. Blinken said of the WHO team’s report on the outbreak that the Biden administration has “real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.”

That report said it was “extremely unlikely” the virus was introduced through a laboratory incident. According to Axios, the WHO team “scrapped plans to issue an interim report in February amid calls from some international scientists for a new investigation, after it emerged that Chinese authorities refused to provide the team with raw, underlying data on early COVID cases.”

This week, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta broke ranks with his network to voice support for Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Mediate’s The Interview podcast.

Redfield believes the virus most likely escaped accidentally from a lab in Wuhan.

‘He’s an experienced virologist. He was also head of the CDC at the time this was happening, which means that in addition to everything that we know, he had access to raw data and raw intelligence that was coming out of China,’ Gupta said.

It being China, of course, it’s as Chico Marx said: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

Now China is magnanimously distributing hundreds of millions of doses of domestically manufactured COVID-19 vaccine across the country and the world.

There’s just one problem, however: China is admitting its current vaccines offer low protection. There are five vaccines involved in its immunization campaign: three inactivated-virus vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm, a one-shot vaccine from CanSino, and one from Anhui Zhifei Longcom. The effectiveness of the vaccines ranges from just over 50% to 79%, according to the manufacturers.

The vaccine making its way around the world – to 30 low- and middle-income countries – is Sinovac’s two-dose vaccine, CoronaVac. It barely makes the cut, at 50.7% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 in a Brazil trial. The benchmark for a vaccine worth using is 50%.

CoronaVac costs about $30 per dose, according to Chinese state media, and can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, so it could be a useful option for low- and middle-income countries struggling to secure vaccines. The WHO reported last week that low-income countries had received just 0.2% of the 700 million jabs administered worldwide. More than 180 million CoronaVac doses have already been sent to 30 low-and-middle income countries, including Brazil, Chile and the Philippines.

Quartz Africa reported last month that China has sold and donated vaccines to 13 African countries: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Before that China practiced “mask diplomacy,” shipping personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies to African countries and elsewhere.

It’s generous of China to help alleviate the problem that began in its nation, even if it refuses to accept blame. Yes, there are vaccines, even from China. Yet still nobody knows how the outbreak began.

Compiled by Benita Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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