China said all its leaders had received locally produced Covid-19 shots, the first such confirmation in the absence of a vaccine mandate for the country with the world’s strictest controls on the virus.
National Health Commission official Zeng Yixin said at a briefing on Saturday that the Chinese leadership is “highly confident” in domestic vaccines. The department also addressed concerns surrounding the shots, saying the vaccines won’t trigger illnesses like leukemia and diabetes.
The State Department had previously declined to comment on President Xi Jinping’s vaccination status, unlike leaders such as US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who were vaccinated on camera in 2020. Making them a “global public good” and advancing science, rather than urging the larger population at home to adopt them.
Although nearly 90% of China’s total population is fully vaccinated, the over-80 age group lags behind. About 61% of people in this category had received two shots, compared with about 89% for 60- to 69-year-olds and 87% for 70- to 79-year-olds.
Repatriation among the country’s 267 million people over the age of 60 has been one reason China is sticking to its isolationist Covid-zero strategy. This has made it difficult to fully relax rules around mass testing, lockdowns and travel bans, and has put the economy at constant risk of disruption.
While officials are actively encouraging seniors to get the vaccine, concerns about possible side effects, including worsening of some existing diseases, have kept many senior residents away. Still, the latest data shows a capitulation, with the rate among those 80 and older rising from 51% in March.
China’s first attempt to order the vaccine earlier this month was abruptly canceled within days of the announcement by municipal officials in Beijing. The plan to stop people from entering public venues without proof of vaccination sparked an outcry online, with Chinese social media users calling it an illegal cap on their freedoms and questioning how effective the vaccines were against immune-evasive variants.
The vaccine mandate has emerged as a surprising red line for the ruling Communist Party. The leadership has so far been reluctant to throw its political capital or security state reserves behind a vaccine, despite providing other countries with its homegrown shot and no road map for exiting Covid zero without full coverage. It is not clear whether this is because the Xi government is unwilling to exercise its powers or because of a lack of consensus about the vaccine’s effectiveness.
According to the National Health Commission, the number of local infections nationwide for Saturday stood at 869, including 782 asymptomatic cases. The number rose again after a decline on Friday and infections are nearing a two-month high.
Most of Saturday’s cases came from inland Gansu province, where the capital Lanzhou went into lockdown days earlier. The southern province of Guangxi is also a hotspot.
As of July 23, a total of 3.42 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine had been administered in China, according to the latest official data.