One of China’s leading scientists has been injected with an experimental coronavirus vaccine to encourage the public to follow suit when one is approved.
Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, has not said when or how he took the vaccine candidate, leaving it unclear whether he was injected as part of a government-approved human trial.
China is competing with US and British companies to be the first with a vaccine to help end the pandemic – a feat that would be both a scientific and political triumph.
Eight of the nearly two dozen potential vaccines in various stages of human-testing worldwide are from China, the most of any country.
Mr Gao declined to say which of the vaccines he was injected with, saying he did not want to be seen as “doing some kind of propaganda” for a particular company.
The scientist was speaking in a webinar hosted by Alibaba Health, an arm of the Chinese e-commerce giant, and Cell Press, an American publisher of scientific journals.
He said: “I’m going to reveal something undercover: I am injected with one of the vaccines.
“I hope it will work.”
Mr Gao said he took the injection to instil public confidence in vaccines, especially amid a tide of rising mistrust that has fuelled conspiracy theories and attacks on scientists.
He added: “Everybody has suspicions about the new coronavirus vaccine.
“As a scientist, you’ve got to be brave … If even we didn’t do it, how can we persuade the whole world – all the people, the public – to be vaccinated?”
Mr Gao was a co-author on a paper introducing one of the candidates last month.
The “inactivated” vaccine was made by growing the whole virus in a lab and then killing it.
That candidate is being developed by an affiliate of state-owned SinoPharm.
The company previously said in an online post that 30 employees, including top executives, helped “pre-test” its vaccine in March, before it was approved for its initial human study.
Andrew Rennekamp, an editor at Cell and one of the moderators of Mr Gao’s webinar, said: “This is a brave thing to do, and it shows his faith in what he believes is the safety of the vaccine and his commitment to the science and to public health.”
Scientists vehemently debate such self-experimentation, because what happens to one or a few people outside a well-designed study is not usable evidence of safety or effectiveness.
It had earlier been reported that a state-owned Chinese company injected employees with experimental shots in March – even before the country’s government had approved testing in people.
The move raised ethical concerns among some experts.
China is striving to overcome years of drug scandals – the latest coming in 2018 when authorities recalled a rabies vaccine and later announced that batches of children’s DPT vaccines – for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus – were ineffective.
Mr Gao himself had also been under heavy scrutiny for the China CDC’s initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, both at home and abroad.
He largely vanished from public view for months, resurfacing again in an interview with state media in late April.
Mr Gao has recently been involved in research on coronavirus.
He said China’s CDC is now looking into potential immunisation programmes, trying to work out whether to prioritise children, the elderly or healthcare workers.