SinoPharm’s attenuated vaccine against Covid-19, developed by its subsidiary CNBG. Photo: Handout

The United Arab Emirates has officially accredited the efficacy of a Chinese Covid vaccine, giving it a much-awaited overseas regulatory breakthrough.

UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has already received shots of the drug developed by China’s state-owned SinoPharm.

Health Minister Abdul Rahman bin Mohammed Al Owais, who got his jabs in September, approved the registration of the vaccine on Wednesday for it to hit the local market once production and shipment from China can be worked out.  

UAE’s Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum posted on his Twitter account a photo of him receiving a dose of the Chinese vaccine.

Based on an attenuated form of the highly infectious coronavirus and a less virulent flu pathogen, the Chinese vaccine developed and supplied by SinoPharm subsidiary China National Biotec Group (CNBG) attained an overall 86% efficacy rate against Covid infection in final-stage clinical trials in the UAE.

This was way higher than the World Health Organization’s threshold of 50%. The approval comes on the eve of the UAE capital Abu Dhabi’s drive to resume all economic and tourist activities in two weeks. Dubai is also pinning high hopes on vaccines for its World Expo, now postponed to October 2021.

The UAE’s Health Ministry said the Chinese vaccine’s registration could lead to comprehensively protecting the population and responsibly reopening the economy.

Xinhua and WAM, the UAE’s state news agency, revealed more details on Thursday about the trials and registration. It is reported that the UAE’s health authority examined, audited and signed off on the third-stage human trial interim data and analysis report submitted by SinoPharm about the 31,000-odd participants from as many as 125 nations given either the vaccine or placebos. 

The SinoPharm report reviewed by the UAE claimed that the vaccine had a 99% seroconversion rate of neutralizing antibody and 100% effectiveness in preventing moderate and severe cases of the respiratory disease and that no severe side effects had been observed in the large base of participants. 

China’s state-backed Global Times cited a SinoPharm executive as saying that the UAE’s safety and efficacy survey of frontline health workers after their emergency vaccination in September dovetailed nicely with SinoPharm’s data. 

UAE’s carrier Emirates has also reputedly commissioned a dedicated vaccine logistics center at Dubai’s airport, believed to be tailor-made for the large consignments of Chinese vaccines coming for the country or even the rest of the Middle East in 2021.

Emirates’ vaccine logistics center at Dubai’s airport. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily said in its editorial that there were grounds to believe that the UAE must have been stringent with the review and registration of the Chinese vaccine, given the country’s record of being transparent in its anti-virus policymaking and mass testing.

“The UAE also maintains sound ties with the West so sourcing vaccines from the United States or elsewhere should not be a grave challenge. If the Chinese vaccine is not safe or effective, there is no reason for the UAE to endorse Beijing’s vaccine propaganda and risk its own image and the health of its own people.

“Thus the UAE’s approval and its top leader’s injection of the SinoPharm vaccine have come as a much-needed vote of confidence that will help convince more countries. Diversified supply of vaccines, with viable alternatives from China, is key to ensuring fair and equitable access by poor countries,” said the op-ed. 

Participants recruited by SinoPharm take part in a briefing about the vaccine trial in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Handout

SinoPharm revealed that senior officials in Egypt and Bahrain also took part in trials held there.

At the end of November, SinoPharm filed applications with the State Medical Products Administration for the commercial sale of its vaccines, but there is no Covid vaccine information on the drug watchdog’s website that gives details of its approval process.  

Other than the one from CNBG, the drug-making conglomerate has another vaccine from its Wuhan Biotech Institute that is in final trials. SinoVac, another Chinese pharmaceutical firm, also claims that its attenuated vaccine is progressing towards the end of trials and will soon be rolled out.  

State broadcaster China Central Television also reported on Wednesday that one million doses of Chinese vaccines had been en route to Brazil’s Sao Paulo and another bigger batch of 1.2 million doses would be primed for the Indonesian capital Jakarta. CCTV said Beijing had been moving quickly to deliver President Xi Jinping’s pledges of vaccine donations to the developing world. 

CCTV also syndicated reports in the Philippines and Pakistan about these countries’ endorsement of the reliance of Chinese vaccines.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper said the nation’s Covid policy and vaccine program chief Carlito Galvez would like to get Chinese vaccines, which could be among the first batch to be approved in the country. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said vaccine sourcing talks between Islamabad and Beijing had been progressing well.  

Information on the packaging of another attenuated vaccine from SinoVac. Photo: WeChat

After Britain became the first Western power to start mass immunization following its approval of Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, it is believed that Beijing could be in a hurry to launch a similar program.

Beijing may aim to inject an extra dose of national pride among the Chinese masses when it starts vaccinating its people and shipping some drugs to promised recipient nations. But Xinhua said on Thursday that it was not practicable for China, the world’s most populous country, to compete with Britain or other nations with much smaller populations in the inoculation race. 

Still, China could be sitting on a sizable vaccine stockpile after the National Health Commission noted last week that 600 million doses – matching nearly half of the Chinese population – would be ready by the New Year break. 

An epidemiologist with Shanghai’s Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Asia Times that the long-term effectiveness of China’s attenuated vaccines remained to be further ascertained, and that they would be put to real tests in mass inoculation programs next year.

The expert said attenuated vaccines had long been proven to be safe, easy to develop, mass-produce and distribute yet the immune response, triggered by the “detoxified” and inactive virus contained in the vaccine, may not be significant or long-lasting, thus more than one dose would be required to maximize the protection. 

SinoPharm’s attenuated vaccines require two injections, with an interval of 14 days. 

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