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China’s Biggest Covid Failure Is Not Deploying an mRNA Vaccine

Beijing refuses to allow Western shots even though development of homegrown ones lags.

Covid vaccination at a mobile site in Beijing on April 9.

Covid vaccination at a mobile site in Beijing on April 9.

Photographer: Chen Zhonghao/Xinhua News Agency/eyevine/Redux

Weeks into a Covid-19 outbreak in Shanghai that brought China’s financial hub to a standstill, the government of President Xi Jinping has demonstrated its willing to go to extremes in its quest to contain the virus. One thing Xi has so far been unwilling to do is deploy a powerful tool against the highly contagious omicron variant: mRNA vaccines. Those shots could reduce the chances of elderly and other vulnerable Chinese getting seriously ill or dying—and possibly help the country transition away from its “Covid Zero” stance.

Lining up the necessary supplies shouldn’t be hard because Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co. in March 2020 agreed to buy a stake of 0.7% in BioNTech SE and to market the mRNA vaccine the German company co-developed with Pfizer Inc. in China. Before the close of that same year, the two companies had arrived at a plan to distribute 100 million doses in China, once they got the green light from the government. Yet the drug regulator has yet to grant approval.