(Bloomberg) -- China is considering rolling out a fourth round of Covid vaccines, according to people familiar with the matter, as pressure on the government mounts to move away from the stringent virus restrictions that have made the country a global outlier.

Officials are making plans for the rollout, though a final decision on timing and vaccine candidates still has to be made, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing government business. Elderly people, which have some of the lowest vaccination rates in China, will be prioritized for fourth shots, one of the people said.

The move is aimed at raising protection levels in its population, the vast majority of whom have never contracted the virus. China appears to be laying the groundwork for accepting wider Covid spread, and a potential reopening after three years of trying to keep the virus out. A fourth shot, already commonplace in other countries, would aid that transition.

A National Health Commission spokesperson said he was not aware of such plans. 

Yet officials face the challenge of persuading people, especially the elderly, to come forward for more shots. In China, only 69% of those aged 60 and above and just 40% of over 80-year-olds have had booster shots. In the US, over 70% of those over 65 have received a first booster, while 44% have already received a second.

Earlier this week, top health authorities said they would intensify efforts to vaccinate the elderly, through measures like pushing shots harder in nursing centers and using big data to identify those suitable for shots. 

China Pushes Elderly Vaccination as Reopening Pressure Grows (3)

But they stopped short of enacting mandates which have been effective in raising inoculation rates in other countries. China has staunchly insisted that immunization must be fully voluntary and that the movements of the unvaccinated must not be limited. 

The vaccination push is taking place as public anger over the strict Covid Zero regime simmers, spilling onto the streets in demonstrations across major cities earlier this week. While the central government has avoided acknowledging the protests, it has warned that “illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order” won’t be tolerated. 

Meanwhile, state media and official rhetoric on Covid has softened, with stories of people surviving infection being highlighted publicly and the phrase “dynamic Covid Zero” appearing less often in government briefings.  

Softer China Stance on Covid Emerges in Media, Official Rhetoric

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