Chinese authorities are rolling out third shots of coronavirus vaccines for high-risk groups in at least 10 regions, according to state media, as the country races to meet its goal of fully vaccinating 80% of its population by the end of the year.
After a series of outbreaks of the delta variant, Wang Huaqing, chief expert for China’s immunization program at the Chinese Center for Disease Control, recommended last month that additional shots be administered to people in front-line professions, including medical workers; people with weaker immune systems; those age 60 or older; and travelers going to countries deemed at high risk.
Chinese health officials have said that further studies were still needed to determine whether the rest of the population would benefit from getting an additional shot.
By Sunday, more than 40,000 people in Hubei, the province encompassing Wuhan where the virus first emerged, had received booster shots, according to state media reports. In the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which had a flare-up of the delta variant last month, local health officials said that people who got the booster shot would see their government-issued health codes upgraded to reflect their strengthened immune status.
Last month, China announced that it had fully inoculated 1 billion people, or about 71% of its population of 1.4 billion. The country has administered 2.21 billion doses, more than twice that of India, which is ranked second for shots given, according to Our World in Data, which tracks vaccination figures.
Despite its high vaccination rate, China has shown no signs of abandoning its “zero COVID” strategy and has instead continued to employ a mix of stringent border controls, mass testing and snap lockdowns to tame outbreaks.
On Monday, a panel of experts advising the World Health Organization recommended that an additional dose be administered to people over 60 who were inoculated with vaccines made by Chinese companies Sinopharm and Sinovac. The panel cited evidence from studies in Latin America that immune protection from the Chinese vaccines wanes significantly over time. While the experts also recommended additional doses of the seven WHO-authorized vaccines for people with weaker immune systems, the Chinese-made shots were the only ones that were singled out for expanded use for older people in the general population.
In a nod to concerns that poorer countries are struggling to offer first doses to their populations while some wealthier countries administer boosters, the WHO panel recommended that health authorities using the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines aim to fully inoculate older populations before administering third doses.
Authorities in Turkey have already been allowing people inoculated with Sinovac’s vaccine to get an additional shot of the Pfizer vaccine to help facilitate travel to countries where the Chinese vaccines have not been approved.
More than 1 billion Chinese-made doses have been administered in over 90 countries outside China, though outbreaks in several countries over the summer have raised questions about the efficacy of the shots at preventing the spread of the virus, especially new variants.
The concerns have not slowed China’s efforts to engage in vaccine diplomacy. Last month, the Pan American Health Organization struck a deal with Sinovac to buy millions of COVID-19 vaccines for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where access to vaccines has been highly uneven.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.