German Expats in China Will Have Access to BioNTech Vaccine, Says Scholz

BEIJING (Reuters) – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced an agreement on Friday to let expatriates in China use the COVID-19 vaccine from Germany’s BioNTech and pressed for Beijing to allow the shot to be made freely available to Chinese citizens.

On his first visit to China since becoming chancellor and the first by a G7 leader since the pandemic, Scholz said China and Germany had different approaches to fighting the virus but had a joint responsibility to eliminate it.

BioNTech would be the first non-Chinese coronavirus vaccine to be administered in China as Beijing has hitherto insisted on administering domestically produced vaccines.

Scholz made the remarks during a one-day visit that tested the waters between China and the West after years of increasing tensions, with talks also touching on the war in Ukraine, reciprocal market access and climate change.

BioNTech partners on COVID vaccines with major U.S. pharma firm Pfizer in regions outside of greater China. As early as 2020 it struck a parallel collaboration agreement with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical with a view to supply the shots to greater China.

But while the shots became available in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, the regulatory review for mainland China has not been concluded. BioNTech has said that decision was up to Chinese regulators and has not given a reason for the delay.

No other foreign-made COVID shot has gained access to mainland China’s market.

Shares in BioNTech were up 3.6% at 1655 GTM while Fosun shares gained 5.2%.

A spokesperson for BioNTech told Reuters that vaccines would be initially imported into China, provided that regulatory approval is granted.

Shanghai Fosun did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The two countries “agreed on close cooperation in the fight against the pandemic,” Scholz said in a briefing alongside the Chinese premier Li Keqiang.

“This also includes an approval of the BioNTech vaccine for expatriates in China. Of course, this can only be a first step. I hope that the circle of eligible persons can soon be widened to a general free ability of the BioNTech vaccine,” said Scholz.

The announcement comes amid rumours that Beijing will soon lift its stringent COVID-19 lockdown policies, though there has been no official announcement to that effect.

China’s zero-COVID policy and lockdown measures kept death and infection rates minimal but caused massive disruptions both domestically and in global trade and supply chains.

China has nine domestically developed COVID vaccines approved for use, more than any other country. But none has been updated to target the highly infectious Omicron variant, as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have for boosters in many developed countries.

Moderna said in September it had held talks with the Chinese government about supplying COVID vaccines but it did not say at the time whether talks were ongoing.

A recent study showed the most widely used shots in China were effective in preventing severe cases and deaths but showed lower effectiveness against the Omicron variant.

Domestically made mRNA vaccines in development have not been approved, but Indonesia said in September it had approved emergency use of an mRNA vaccine developed by China’s Walvax Biotechnology Co Ltd.

(Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle in Berlin, Hans Seidenstuecker in Frankfurt, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Miyoung Kim in Singapore; writing by Matthias Williams and Ludwig Burger; Editing by Miranda Murray, Jason Neely and Josie Kao)

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