KEY POINTS

  • A Harvard University analysis indicates the virus may have started circulating in China in August, months earlier than Beijing has indicated
  • The Chinese vaccine candidates use inactive viruses as well as other techniques, including genetic engineering
  • Pulmonary expert Zhong Nanshan said without a vaccine, 30 million or 40 million people would need to die to achieve herd immunity

China’s top respiratory expert said Tuesday a vaccine for the coronavirus could be ready as early as autumn for emergency use, months earlier than the timeline envisioned by U.S. experts. The comments came amid a Harvard University study that found the virus began circulating in China much earlier than previously suspected.

Zhong Nanshan, former president of the Chinese Medical Association and current the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Thoracic Disease, said guidelines are being drafted to determine who will get the vaccine first and when, along with what would constitute emergency use.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has said 100 million doses of a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year – even before trials on safety and efficacy are completed.

China has spent a reported $703 million on the development of a vaccine, with five currently undergoing testing. Several others developed elsewhere in the world also are undergoing trials, setting up a global competition akin to the space race.

The journal Cell on Saturday published a preliminary study of a vaccine developed by the Bejing Institute of Biological Products that effectively blocked infection in rhesus monkeys. Development of an effective vaccine by China likely would help deflect criticism of the country’s early handling of the outbreak.

Another vaccine developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products is in the midst of human trials. Both vaccines use inactivated viruses. Research also is focused on other techniques including genetic engineering.

Zhong said without a vaccine, death tolls will continue to mount. By midmorning Tuesday, more than 407,000 people had died worldwide from COVID-19  -- more than a quarter in the United States alone.

“Natural immunity needs 60- to 70% of a country’s population to be infected by the novel coronavirus, which could cause a death toll of 30 [million] to 40 million,” Zhong told the South China Morning Post. “The [only] solution is still mass vaccination.”

He added: “Large-scale vaccination will take one to two years. The new vaccine can be used in an emergency as early as this autumn or the end of the year.”

China rejected findings by Harvard University that coronavirus began circulating in Wuhan as early as August by examining satellite images of hospital parking lots. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying called the conclusions “preposterous,” but the researchers said the findings line up with “the recent recognition that gastrointestinal symptoms are a unique feature of COVID-19 disease and may be the chief complaint of a significant proportion of presenting patients.”

China has maintained the infection emerged in November but has been sharply criticized for suppressing information in the initial stages of the pandemic.