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My Family’s Global Vaccine Journey

  • April 11, 2021

Our parents’ thinking evolved. It helped when an 80-year-old uncle in Tallahassee, Fla., was vaccinated in January. He was the first in our extended family to be inoculated, and the news sparked much excitement on a WhatsApp thread among my aunts, uncles and parents.

“It would be safer to get it” than not to, Dad concluded.

Then came another curveball. Mom and Dad announced that they were willing to get only vaccines made in China. At least four Chinese biopharmaceutical companies, such as Sinovac and Sinopharm, had developed Covid vaccines, joining a field that also included Britain and Sweden’s AstraZeneca, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and America’s Johnson Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer, the last of which had teamed up with the German company BioNTech.

The wrinkle was that Sinovac’s two-shot vaccine had an efficacy rate of about 50 percent, according to clinical trials. That was substantially lower than the European and American vaccines, in particular the shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Those prevented about 90 percent of infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet Dad was firm. Years of a deteriorating relationship between China and the United States, including a trade war, had made him skeptical of American superpower. A proponent of a strong, united China, he was proud of the country’s rise in recent decades. “I’m patriotic,” he said about the vaccine choice.

China and other countries have nurtured such vaccine patriotism. Last month, Beijing promised expedited visa processing to foreigners inoculated with Chinese-made vaccines. Britain has also wrapped the Union Jack around the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed with researchers at Oxford University, said Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of First Draft, a nonprofit focused on global misinformation.

My sisters and I were simply relieved that Dad and Mom would take a vaccine. Get whatever you can, we told them, because any vaccine was better than none.

Ultimately, the matter of which one they could get was dictated not by nationalism but by supply. In late February, Hong Kong got its first vaccine shipments: one million doses of Sinovac. (Hong Kong would later receive 585,000 doses of the BioNTech vaccine via a Chinese company, Fosun.)

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