China has approved its first homegrown Covid-19 vaccine for general use, marking the addition of another vaccine in the global fight against the resurgent virus.
The two-dose vaccine from state-owned Sinopharm is the first approved for general use in China. The company announced Wednesday that preliminary data from last-stage trials had shown it to be 79.3% effective.
Technically, China granted conditional approval for the vaccine, which means that research is still ongoing, and the company will be required to submit follow-up data as well as reports of any adverse effects after the vaccine is sold on the market.
Experts have said important data was missing from Wednesday’s announcement, such as the size of the control group, how many people were vaccinated and at what point the 79.3% efficacy rate was reached after injection.
The go-ahead comes shortly after the country launched a program to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year holiday in February. It also comes one day after British regulators authorized AstraZeneca’s inexpensive and easy-to-handle vaccine.
The back-to-back approvals could bring poorer countries, many of which have been unable to secure the Pfizer and Moderna doses being snapped up by rich countries, one step closer to getting vaccines sooner.
Officials declined to name a particular price and gave conflicting statements about it. “It will certainly be in the limit of what people can afford,” said Zheng Zhongwei, a National Health Commission official.
A minute later, Zeng, the NHC official, stepped in to say that the vaccines “will definitely be free for the public.”
China’s vaccine, like Russia’s Sputnik shot, could be easier for countries around the world to handle than the Pfizer or Moderna shots, which have stricter cold chain requirements. Sinopharm’s vaccine is able to be stored at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit), or a normal refrigeration temperature.
Pakistan plans to buy 1.2 million doses of a Sinopharm vaccine, two days after its death toll topped 10,000. Sinopharm’s vaccine has already been approved in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and is slated for use next in Morroco.
Other countries have also been buying doses of another Chinese vaccine candidate, made by Sinovac Biotech. Turkey received the shipments this week of 3 million doses. Indonesia and Brazil have all purchased Sinovac’s vaccines.
China is eager to distribute its vaccines globally, driven by a desire to repair the damage to its image by the pandemic that started a year ago in the central city of Wuhan.
President Xi Jinping has vowed to donate the vaccine as a public good to the world and China has joined COVAX, a global plan for equal distribution and access.
“We eagerly await Chinese vaccines to be included in COVAX’s vaccine bank soon and get WHO prequalification soon as well,” said Shen Bo, a Foreign Ministry official.
The vaccine standards were developed in “close cooperation” with the WHO, officials said.
Meeting the WHO qualification could go some way toward assuring the rest of the world about the quality and efficacy of Chinese vaccines, which already face a reputation problem back home. It would also open the path for Chinese vaccines to be distributed in COVAX and potentially in countries that don’t have their own regulatory agencies.