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In recent weeks, Chinese state media outlets have published a string of stories attacking the COVID-19 vaccine developed by German vaccine maker BioNTech in partnership with American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and China’s Fosun Pharma, creating a narrative that people should be skeptical of the vaccine even as the country prepares to roll it out to its own population.
The People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper that’s owned by the Chinese Communist Party, wrote on Monday that English-language media was levying unfair criticism of Chinese vaccines while promoting Western ones like Pfizer’s.
“Mainstream English-language media mentioned little about the deaths of 23 elderly Norwegian people after they were vaccinated with Pfizer vaccines as if those media outlets had already reached a consensus to downplay the incident,” the story said on Jan. 18.
The newspaper was referring to the deaths of dozens of people in Norway who died after getting immunized with BioNTech and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Health authorities in Norway said that all of the patients who died were over the age of 75 with serious underlying health conditions. The government also said it found no direct link between the deaths and the injections.
On Jan. 15, the Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid, published an editorial blasting Western media for not paying more attention to the deaths in Norway.
“[Western media] is using propaganda to promote Pfizer vaccines and smearing Chinese vaccines,” wrote the Global Times. “This large-scale promotion of Pfizer’s vaccine is a continuous process of large-scale testing on human beings.”
The latter claim refers to the mRNA technology that’s at the heart of BioNTech’s vaccine. The claim, which has been popular among anti-vaccine activists, suggests that the BioNTech vaccine might be unsafe since it is the first mRNA vaccine ever to be approved by U.S. authorities.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control resolutely denies the assertion.
“Like all vaccines, COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have been rigorously tested for safety before being authorized for use in the United States,” the CDC says on its website. “mRNA technology is new, but not unknown. [mRNA vaccines] have been studied for more than a decade.”
But even as Chinese state media outlets sow doubt about the Pfizer-BioNTech’s doses, Chinese authorities may soon begin distributing the vaccine to their own constituents, making the criticism all the more puzzling.
BioNTech has partnered with China’s Fosun Pharma to distribute the vaccine in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. In Hong Kong, a panel of government experts recommended that health authorities approve the vaccine for general use this week and Hong Kong may start rolling it out as soon as February.
In mainland China, Fosun announced in December that it would buy 100 million doses of BioNTech’s COVID-19 for the mainland Chinese market.
Dr. Aimin Hui, Fosun’s chief medical officer, recently told Fortune that the company is working closely with Chinese regulators on getting the vaccine approved and that Fosun hasn’t detected any serious safety concerns with the vaccine in trials in China. After getting clearance from authorities, Fosun Pharma will market the vaccine in China “as soon as possible,” Dr. Hui said in December.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, says People’s Daily criticism of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine is particularly striking, since the newspaper “represents what the [Chinese Communist Party] would like to be said.”
China’s government often frames the vaccine race in nationalist terms, so Beijing may see criticism of its homegrown vaccines as a challenge to the Chinese state.
In particular, Chinese media has alleged that Western media has been “hyping doubt” regarding private Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac. Experts have criticized the company for not being transparent about its data and have pointed out that it may be less effective than vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Moderna.
Sinovac recently reported a 50.4% efficacy rate in Brazil trials on Jan. 12, one week after Brazilian authorities reported that it was 78% effective. Authorities in Turkey and Indonesia have said Sinovac’s vaccine is 91% and 65% effective, respectively, without providing proof.
Nicholas Thomas, a global health governance professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that criticisms of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine in China may work to undermine some public confidence in the vaccine, given the country’s history of vaccine scandals.
“The Chinese public have long memories when it comes to issues of health and safety,” Thomas says. “It does not make sense for China to attack one of [the vaccines set for distribution].”
Still, Thomas argues, the Chinese public may trust the vaccine developed by BioNTech, Pfizer, and Fosun, more than jabs from domestic companies like Sinovac or Sinopharm since Chinese companies haven’t been as transparent about their data.
“The simple fact is that at least [the BioNTech-Pfizer] data is out in the public realm,” Thomas says. “The Chinese companies have not yet released their third-stage data. Until that happens there will be no way of knowing if their vaccines are effective, to what extent they are effective, and what—if any—are the side effects.”