What could China’s approval of the Pfizer pill mean for the country’s zero-COVID strategy?

What could China’s approval of the Pfizer pill mean for the country’s zero-COVID strategy?
FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment pill Paxlovid is seen in a box, at Misericordia hospital in Grosseto, Italy, February 8, 2022. REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini

The backstory:

  • China is one of just a few countries and the last major economy to pursue a zero-COVID-19 strategy.
  • A zero-COVID-19 strategy essentially aims to eliminate transmission of the virus within the country and allow normal economic and social activity.
  • It is an approach that has led to scrutiny, with many saying that the country is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.
  • More recently, Chinese researchers have published a paper that revealed that, even if the global vaccination rate reached 95%, China would see 234 million infections within a year if it reopened to 2019 levels, including 64 million symptomatic cases and 2 million deaths.
  • “The human race should continue to develop vaccines and explore new ways to improve vaccine protection against infection in order to eliminate COVID-19 at the global level,” the researchers said.
  • To date, China has seen less than 5,000 COVID-19-related deaths since its first major outbreak in Wuhan back in 2020. And because the country has contained the virus with mass testing and stringent social distancing regulations, including surveillance and activity restrictions, it now has relatively little natural protection from previous infections compared to other nations that have opted to live with the virus. This makes China uniquely vulnerable to the virus.
  • And the country has stuck to only domestically-developed vaccines and treatment methods and has not approved the mRNA shot co-produced by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE. In fact, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, licensed to Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co. in China, submitted an application months ago and has not gotten rubber-stamped for authorized use within the country.

The development:

  • Over the weekend, the Chinese government granted conditional approval of Pfizer’s coronavirus pill, otherwise known as Paxlovid. This is the first foreign pharmaceutical treatment method China has approved and endorsed for COVID-19, which helped quell concerns that the country was actively avoiding foreign treatment methods.
  • According to the National Medical Products Administration in a statement on its website on Saturday, the import registration was approved on February 11, with certain requirements like follow-up research results submitted in a timely manner.
  • With this, some say that it will help the country move away from the current zero-COVID-19 approach and make way for a more flexible approach.
  • Hours after the approval was announced on Saturday, Zeng Guang, a former chief scientist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told investors in a briefing organized by Sealand Securities Co. that, “China won’t self-isolate from the rest of world and has various measures at its disposal to change tack. Strategizing precedes action.”
  • “This is an important milestone in our fight against COVID-19," a Pfizer representative said in a statement.
  • Pfizer has said its global supply of Paxlovid in 2022 is just 120 million treatment courses, making it unlikely that the company will be able to fulfill China’s demand.

You drive the stories at TMS. DM us which headline you want us to explain, or email us.