Chinese regulators have approved the country’s first homegrown coronavirus vaccine, developed by state-owned pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm, officials announced Thursday.
The approval comes a day after Sinopharm said its vaccine is 79.34% effective, citing interim analysis of Phase 3 clinical trials.
China has drastically scaled up its vaccine emergency use program in recent weeks. Since December 15, it has administered more than 3 million vaccine doses on “key groups” in the population, Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission, said at a news conference Thursday.
That’s on top of the 1.5 million doses administered on “high-risk groups” by the end of November, Zeng added.
Of those inoculated, fewer than 0.1% of recipients developed a light fever, and about 0.2% developed “relative serious adverse reactions” such as allergies, according to Zeng.
Beijing Biological Products Institute Co., a Sinopharm subsidiary, said in a statement published Wednesday that interim results show the Sinopharm vaccine is safe and people who received two doses produced high-level antibodies.
But the statement gave no details on the data, such as the trial size, the number of infections in the trial and side effects.
Coronavirus vaccines developed by Sinopharm have already been administered to hundreds of thousands of people under a controversial emergency use program approved by the Chinese government.
By November, nearly 1 million people had received a Sinopharm vaccine, according to the company’s chairman, though he didn’t specify which of the company’s two vaccines they had received.
Though few details were provided, the statement released Wednesday said the vaccine met the standards of the World Health Organization and China’s own regulator, the National Medical Products Administration.
The Sinopharm vaccine is less effective than those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which have an efficacy rate of about 95%. Russia says its Sputnik V vaccine is 91% effective.
And the vaccine’s efficacy rate of 79% is lower than the 86% announced by the United Arab Emirates for the same vaccine on December 9. The UAE based its results on an interim analysis of late-stage clinical trials conducted there from July. It has since approved the vaccine for public use.
The Sinopharm vaccine has a higher efficacy rate than the one developed by the UK’s Oxford University and AstraZeneca, which averaged 70%. On Wednesday, the UK became the first country to approve that vaccine for public distribution.
A step closer to massive rollout
Sinopharm’s results were announced weeks after its global competitors. And with a lack of details, it remains unclear whether the information provided will be enough to dispel skepticism over the quality of Chinese vaccines.
Nevertheless, the announcement could still pave the way for the vaccine’s large-scale rollout both within China and globally.
The country is aiming to inoculate 50 million people with homegrown Covid-19 vaccines ahead of February’s Lunar New Year celebrations, a Chinese vaccination expert confirmed to CNN earlier this month.
China is ready to send hundreds of millions of doses to countries that have conducted last-stage trials for its leading vaccine candidates. Chinese leaders have also promised a growing list of developing countries priority access.
Beijing is using the global campaign as a soft power tool, analysts say, to try to repair any damage to its image from its early mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from the approved Sinopharm vaccine, China has four coronavirus candidates which have reached Phase 3 clinical trials — the last and most important step of testing before regulatory approval is sought. Having largely eliminated the spread of coronavirus inside its borders, Chinese drugmakers had to look abroad for places to test the efficacy of their vaccines. Together, they have rolled out Phase 3 trials in at least 16 countries.
Sinopharm’s two vaccine candidates, including the one approved in China, have rolled out Phase 3 trials in 10 countries, mostly in the Middle East and South America.
Sinopharm chairman Liu Jingzhen said last month that dozens of countries have requested to buy the company’s vaccines. He did not name the countries or elaborate on the amount of doses they proposed, but he said CNBG was capable of producing more than a billion doses in 2021.
Compared with Pfizer and Moderna, Sinopharm’s vaccines do not require freezing temperatures for storage, making transport and distribution much easier — especially in developing countries that lack cold storage capacities.