Kuala Lumpur May 23 —With the world facing acute shortage in Covid-19 vaccines, WHO’s nod for global use of China’s Sinopharm vaccine provides a huge relief.

IN recent weeks, there has been an incessant flow of exciting news on Chinese vaccines that carries wide-ranging implications for China as well as vaccine-deprived developing countries.

On May 7, the World Health Organisation announced its approval for emergency use a Covid-19 vaccine from China’s government-owned drugmaker Sinopharm, greenlighting it to be rolled out globally.

The Sinopharm vaccine, with scientific name BBIBP-CorV, is the first developed by a non-Western country to gain WHO listing.

Prior to this, WHO had given emergency use approvals to Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna.

A WHO backing means that the vaccine is recognised as “safe and effective”. It also means the vaccine can be included in Covax, a WHO global programme to distribute vaccines mainly to the poor countries.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed out the significance of this listing to the world at a press briefing on May 7.

“This expands the list of Covid-19 vaccines that Covax can buy, and gives countries confidence to expedite their own regulatory approval, and to import and administer a vaccine, ” he said.

According to Xinhua, the Sinopharm vaccine is expected to accelerate vaccine rollout in many low and middle-income countries through purchase and delivery by the WHO-led Covax initiative.

On May 10, Beijing repeated its policy to “continue to promote the fair access of Covid-19 vaccines in developing countries”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a press briefing Beijing will honour its pledge to provide 10 million vaccine doses to Covax for developing nations.

For Beijing, the WHO approval is a strong credit given to its emerging biotechnology sector. The listing is a confidence booster and major milestone achieved by China’s local pharmaceutical industry, which the government is promoting as a growth sector.

“The listing marks an important achievement in the epidemic prevention and control for China, ” hails China’s official news agency Xinhua, which also notes that China was the first country to have put the Covid-19 pandemic under control and has developed one of the earliest vaccines in the world.

The WHO recognition will also bolster China’s push to inoculate the developing nations that are facing supply shortage, in its oft-repeated objective to use its vaccine to do “global public good”.

For the Chinese vaccine recipient countries, doubt cast on the efficacy of Chinese vaccines donated or sold to them has dissipated instantly. Over 200 million doses of Sinopharm vaccine have been supplied in China and abroad.

The vaccine, developed by Beijing Biological Products Institute, a unit of Sinopharm subsidiary China National Biotec Group (CNBG), is said to have an efficacy of 79% for all age groups.

“After the WHO’s approval, our vaccines will be able to contribute more to the global fight against the pandemic, as the vaccines enter the global procurement and supply system, ” Yang Xiaoming, chairman of Sinopharm CNBG, told China’s state TV channel CGTN.

As of this month, Sinopharm has produced over 400 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

Sinopharm’s chairman Liu Jingzhen, at a recent forum, announced that the company would raise its annual production capacity to five billion doses, from the previous plan of three billion, due to the sudden surge in overseas interest in the vaccine.

As of this month, more than 100 countries and international organisations have expressed interest in the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine, he added.

Sinopharm plans to build new and expand vaccine-producing plants, and enter into vaccine-making ventures overseas, according to the company chairman.

As Chinese companies are known for their production speed and reliability in delivery, the developing world – now facing supply crunch – can rely on China to save lives and economy.

The current situation is: while the poor nations cannot afford to buy vaccines, most developing countries outside the US, UK and EU are still waiting for delivery of Western vaccines they have ordered.

As of early May, more than 1.1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses had been administered globally but over 80% of these shots were given to residents in developed or high-income countries. Only 0.3% of the doses are available in low-income countries, according to the WHO.

Against this backdrop, Sinopharm vaccine that does not require ultra low temperature for storage will be a good candidate to fill the gap.

“Its easy storage requirements make it highly suitable for low-resource settings, ” a WHO statement said.

No safety concerns have been identified from pre-clinical or reproductive toxicity studies, while most reactions were injection pain, headache and fatigue.

In fact, long before WHO’s decision, Sinopharm vaccine was already given “recognition” by countries that have run clinical trials on its efficacy, safety and reliability.

The UAE placed its bet on Sinopharm as early as September 2020 when it used the vaccine on its frontline workers, after it launched the phase III clinical trial of the vaccine in July 2020.

The confidence in Sinopharm was enhanced when the country’s leaders and rulers took the vaccine. As a result, the UAE could gradually open up its economy before most other countries in the region.

In April, the UAE went further to announce it would start manufacturing the Sinopharm vaccine for its use and sale to neighbouring countries.

In Europe, Serbia and Hungary were the two earliest countries to inoculate their population with Sinopharm shots.

Other countries that had completed Phase III trials of Sinopharm vaccines are Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Peru.

But the developing world will benefit even more if the WHO approves the emergency use of another Chinese vaccine named CoronaVac, manufactured by privately-owned Sinovac Biotech.

The WHO has said it could reach a decision soon as its technical experts are reviewing it.

A WHO expert panel reportedly said they had a high level of confidence in CoronaVac’s efficacy but there wasn’t enough information to assess the potential for side effects for old people and those with medical conditions.

Despite this, Sinovac has already supplied over 300 million vaccine doses at home and abroad – mainly to Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The recent good news for Sinovac is that both Indonesia and Chile have found CoronaVac to be more protective than expected.

Indonesia, one of the earliest to use CoronaVac in its mass vaccination campaign, revealed this month that a study of some 128,000 Jakarta health workers found CoronaVac to be far more protective than clinical trials had indicated.

Doubt had been cast on Sinovac’s vaccine when clinical trials in Brazil and Turkey saw its efficacy rates ranging from 50% to 91%.

But the Indonesian finding was uplifting. Among others, the finding saw the vaccine protected 98% of the health workers from death, and 96% from being hospitalised.

CoronaVac is used mainly in Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe. Apart from Indonesia, other Asean countries that are using the vaccine are Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Like Indonesia, Chile has selected CoronaVac to bring down rates of death and hospitalisation.

While cases in Chile have spiked recently, its real-world data shows CoronaVac prevented 80% of deaths in those vaccinated.

Another recent significant development for Sinovac is that its vaccine is being reviewed by the EU.

On May 4, the EU’s drug regulator European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced that its human medicines committee (CHMP) has started a rolling review of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Sinovac Life Sciences.

“The CHMP’s decision to start the rolling review is based on preliminary results from laboratory studies (non-clinical data) and clinical studies. These studies suggest that the vaccine triggers the production of antibodies that target the virus that causes Covid-19, and may help protect against the disease, ” said EMA on its website.

If Sinovac is adopted by the EMA, it will mean greenlight is given for its use by 27 EU member nations led by Germany and France.

As a result of Sinopharm’s WHO listing and the deluge of positive news surrounding CoronaVac, it is no surprise that interest in Sinovac is catching up.

According to media reports, Egyptian Health Minister Hala Zayed announced on May 9 that Egypt would start producing China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine in June.

The minister told a press conference that two million doses would be produced in June locally.

“We will receive the first shipment of the raw materials needed to manufacture the vaccine on May 18, ” Zayed said, adding 40 million doses would be planned in the first year.

If CoronaVac is given WHO listing, the vaccine – like Sinopharm’s doses – may make a big impact in resource-scarce developing world as it is affordable and can be stored near room temperature. It does not need to be stored at ultra low temperatures like Pfizer.

Sinovac Biotech said in March that annual production capacity of the firm’s two-dose vaccine CoronaVac could hit two billion doses by June. But strong global demand may drive its output to be raised.

The latest developments indicate that China may be able to produce five billion doses or more of vaccines this year for its domestic use and 40% of world consumption.

If both Sinopharm and Sinovac, as well as other vaccine producers in China, were to ramp up their production, the hope of saving more lives can be in sight.

Hence cooperation with China is important for countries in need of vaccines, given that Covid-19 mutants are rampaging, rich countries are hoarding vaccines and India – previously aimed to be a major vaccine maker – has stopped exports to address its coronavirus crisis.

Although Western vaccines have eased situations in the US, UK and some EU nations, new Covid cases and death toll globally have continued to rise. Many countries are facing a new wave of Covid-19 crisis.

While anti-China quarters may repeat warning of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy and its geopolitical influence, wise national leaders should rank people’s lives and their economies as top priority. ( source : The Star by Ho Wah Foon)


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