n August 18, in an interview with domestic media, Liu Jingzhen, chairman of China National Pharmaceutical Group, a State-owned firm which is developing one of the vaccine candidates for Covid-19 to enter phase III trials, said that he expects it will be available by the end of 2020, and would be priced at no more than 1,000 yuan (US$145) for two shots.
His statement immediately led to a public backlash over the high price. According to a survey by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, 40 percent of households in China have a per capita monthly disposable income of lower than 1,000 yuan, meaning that on average a vaccine will cost a month’s income for more than half of China’s population.
The figure is also much higher than those pledged by some global initiatives. For example, the GAVI Vaccine Alliance is reportedly targeting a US$40 price tag for Covid vaccines in wealthy countries. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced in early August that it is backing the world’s largest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India, to supply 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to poorer countries at less than $3 a shot.
In response to the wide public outcry, Zheng Zhongwei, director of the Development Center for Medical Science and Technology of the National Health Commission, who led a task force on vaccine development for the State Council, said that the Covid-19 vaccine will be priced using development and manufacturing costs as a benchmark, not the market mechanism of supply and demand.
Zheng’s comments have helped ease public concerns over the issue, but anxiety remains given the large sums poured into developing the vaccine. Even using R&D costs as the pricing benchmark, the vaccine could still be expensive for ordinary people. Under China’s existing policy on public medical insurance, vaccines are not covered in the State-subsidized public insurance program. But so far, authorities have been vague about whether the State will finance a mass Covid-19 vaccination program.
As a vaccine is expected to be available in the next few months, policymakers should address the public’s anxiety. As the Covid-19 pandemic is a public health crisis, a vaccine should be considered a public good, which is nonexclusive and non-rivalrous. If the less well-off in society are cut off from access to the vaccine, it could trigger more outbreaks.
In the past months, China has led the world in combating the virus, and has brought the health crisis under control. In the meantime, by providing free treatment to all Covid-19 patients, as well as offering free Covid-19 tests, the Chinese government has gained a high level of support and trust from the public over its handling of the health crisis.
As the battle against Covid-19 enters the next stage, China should continue to set a new benchmark by ensuring that poor and vulnerable groups have equal access to the vaccine. The government should ensure a certain level of profit for pharmaceutical companies that have developed and will manufacture the vaccines, but it should also ensure a balanced, transparent and efficient distribution of the vaccine across sectors and regions. Given China’s large population and vast size, whether the Chinese government can handle this issue effectively will be another test, but hopefully the last, in its fight against the pandemic.