China should speed up the pace of vaccinations to plug the immunity gap against COVID-19 in the population, a top public health researcher has warned.
Zhang Wenhong, director of the infectious disease department at Shanghai's Huashan Hospital, told an online event hosted by the U.S.-based Brookings Institution on Monday that China has sufficient COVID-19 vaccine production capacity, but the pace of vaccination is of "great concern."
Zhang said the production output of COVID-19 vaccines in China is expected to be increased to 2.1 billion by year-end, more than one dose per person for the entire Chinese population. "I don't think we need to worry about capacity in China," he said, but added that he has "great concerns about the speed of administering the vaccination."
Even with 10 million doses administered daily, he estimated it will take up to seven months to vaccinate 70% of the population -- a threshold believed necessary for herd immunity. This type of immunity occurs when a high percentage of the community is immune to a disease, making spread less likely.
Even individuals not vaccinated would be offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread.
The percentage of people who need to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity varies with each disease. For example, herd immunity against measles requires 95% of a population to be vaccinated. For polio, however, the threshold is about 80%. The threshold for COVID-19 is not known, according to the World Health Organization.
Citing sources at China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, public health researcher Zhong Nanshan said at the Brookings event that China is planning to vaccinate about 40% of its population by the end of June. "That would be OK, but it still needs time to reach herd immunity," he said.
"The key point around the world is for people to receive the vaccine as soon as possible," said Zhong, also head of an expert group at China's National Health Commission. "The longer it takes for you to get the vaccine, the more likelihood for mutation of the virus. That's a big problem."
Zhong said the world "should speed up production of all vaccines and prepare new vaccines applicable to variants."
Since Feb. 9, China has administered almost 41 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to Zhang of Shanghai Huashan Hospital, who also heads Shanghai's anti-COVID clinical team. This equates to nearly 2 million doses per day. But Zhang said the country should be administering at least 5 million doses daily to finish before June.
According to global vaccination records of Our World in Data, doses administered per 100 people stand at 3.6% in China as of Feb. 27. Meanwhile, Israel has vaccinated about 93%, the United Arab Emirates 61%, the U.K. 30% and the U.S. 22%.
"China's current strategy is to promote the establishment of the global immunity effort in an internationally coordinated framework," Zhang said. "Meanwhile, we will ensure that our own vaccination strategies are gradually improved."
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