(Reuters) – BioNTech said on Thursday it had sent 11,500 doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to China for use on German expatriates, marking the first overseas-made shots allowed into the country.
The doses, which landed on Wednesday, are enough to give one to half of the 20,000 or so German nationals currently in China and their arrival comes as Beijing dismantles its strict “zero-COVID” regime of lockdowns, which has led to a surge in cases.
BioNTech said the delivery contained both the vaccine targeting the original strain of COVID-19 and its updated one targeting the BA.4/BA.5 subvariants of Omicron.
China has so far insisted on using only Chinese made vaccines, which are traditionally made and not based on the Western mRNA technology, for its own population.
“The arrival of the vaccine doses on the Chinese Mainland is a great milestone for us as joint partners with Fosun Pharma and our efforts to address this pandemic, said Sean Marett, BioNTech’s chief business and commercial officer.
BioNTech said it is working with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical to deliver the shots to greater China, with availability expected in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Chengdu.
Although official case figures have become an unreliable guide, according to some experts, British-based health data firm Airfinity estimated infections in China are likely to be more than a million a day, with deaths at more than 5,000 a day.
Airfinity said it had examined data from China’s regional provinces, noting that cases are rising quicker in the capital Beijing and southern province Guangdong.
The BioNTech vaccines will be sent to German companies as well as embassy locations, and talks are underway with other European Union governments about getting them to citizens of other nationalities, a source familiar with the situation said.
China would need to approve expanding access beyond the about 20,000 German nationals, the source said on Wednesday.
The EU is allowing Chinese nationals to be vaccinated with China’s SinoVac, according to a German government spokesperson, in hopes that Beijing will expand the availability of BioNTech shots to all EU nationals.
A French health ministry official said on Thursday that France had not yet decided how best to vaccinate expatriates in China and the government was following the situation carefully.
To what extent Chinese nationals living abroad would take up the SinoVac offer is unclear, as many have already received the BioNTech vaccine and the situation in Europe is not as dire.
“Most of Chinese here got the BioNTech vaccine, the vaccine that was first available. SinoVac vaccine was not available in Europe,” a first-generation Chinese expatriate who has lived in Europe for more than a decade told Reuters.
The expatriate, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their family in China, said that the government there might only make BioNTech shots available to Chinese nationals if it came to the worst-case scenario.
(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, additional reporting by Miranda Murray in Berlin and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta, Shailesh Kuber, Jane Merriman and Alexander Smith)
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