China plans to inoculate 50 million people with two experimental homegrown Covid-19 vaccines before February’s Lunar New Year holiday season, leading up to vaccinations for the broader public by spring, people familiar with the matter said.
Chinese health officials discussed rolling out vaccinations in two batches before Jan. 15 and Feb. 5 in a conference call earlier this week, according to people close to the matter.
Authorities would then aim to offer these vaccines—by state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm and private Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech Ltd.—“formally to the market” in April, according to one of the people, who viewed a written summary of the call.
China is expanding an already considerable rollout of its leading vaccine candidates, despite warnings by Western public health officials that there isn’t enough scientific data to prove the safety and efficacy of the shots. Previously, Sinopharm said it had inoculated nearly one million people and local health community centers in China began offering ways for people to sign up for shots.
Authorities in the United Arab Emirates, where Sinopharm’s vaccines have been undergoing late-stage clinical trial, have said that one of the firm’s vaccine strains is 86% effective. But neither the U.A.E. nor Sinopharm have released details on how researchers arrived at the estimate.
Sinovac meanwhile hasn’t presented any clinical data proving that its vaccine works.
Calls to Sinopharm on Friday went unanswered. A Sinovac spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither China’s National Health Commission nor its Center for Disease Control and Prevention responded.
News of the vaccination plan was first reported by the South China Morning Post.
Governments around the world are hurrying to vaccinate the public. In the U.S., federal officials expect to have enough Covid-19 vaccines this month to immunize about 20 million people, using both Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc.’s vaccines. Pfizer’s vaccine has already been approved for emergency use in the U.S. and U.K., while Moderna’s is expected to receive similar approval soon in the U.S.
Public health experts say the need for vaccinations in China is less pressing. There, the pandemic is largely under control with new local infections in the single digits a day.
But the government isn’t taking any chances, especially ahead of Lunar New Year, when tens of millions of people travel to visit relatives and friends. After Covid-19 surfaced in Wuhan in late 2019, the virus spread to the rest of the country as people traveled for the holiday, which kicked off in late January.
In July, China started to vaccinate its own medical workers and customs officials, as well as employees of state-owned companies going abroad, as part of an emergency use program. In the following months, officials and Sinopharm said Chinese vaccines were safe and effective based on anecdotal evidence.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported in late November that Sinopharm had applied for authorities to approve its vaccine for public use, citing an executive at the firm. Neither the Chinese drug regulator nor Sinopharm have commented on the matter.
After the U.A.E. announced an efficacy estimate for Sinopharm, it, along with Bahrain, approved the vaccine for broad use. Indonesia and Egypt are among countries that have already begun to receive early batches of Chinese vaccines.
Emergency approvals in the U.S. and U.K. of Pfizer’s vaccine came after scientists showed the candidates’ efficacy at more than 90%.
In China, authorities are reviewing clinical data for the homegrown vaccines and close to approving them for use by the Chinese public, health officials and industry experts said.
China expects to be able to produce around 600 million doses before the end of the year, authorities have said. Most of those are likely to be exported, with the remaining going to emergency vaccinations at home.
The 100 million doses to be doled out in the coming weeks are part of the country’s emergency plan, because they would only be administered to people considered to be at high risk of infection, according to one person close to the matter. At two doses per person, the vaccinations would cover 50 million recipients.
Local governments appear to be gearing up for large-scale vaccinations. The National Health Commission requested provinces and cities to get ready for vaccinations for the Lunar New Year in a call with local officials on Tuesday, according to a statement by the Chongqing municipal government.
The central province of Sichuan said this month that it has already received more than 100,000 doses of vaccines, and that it plans to inoculate more than two million people by the end of the year, according to its official Weibo social messaging account and a statement on its website.
Central Hunan province plans to begin emergency vaccinations as early as the end of this year, the government said in a statement online, without further details.
—Raffaele Huang and Yoko Kubota contributed to this article.
Write to Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com
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