SinoPharm’s inactivated vaccine is on display at the headquarters of the National Health Commission in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing is scrambling to give its vaccines performance a shot in the arm, with most of the 1.6 billion doses administered nationwide supplied by Sinovac being scorned due to their mediocre protection against new strains. 

Trials in Brazil suggesting 50% effectiveness is borne out by takers of Sinovac contracting the Delta strain in current outbreaks across China.

With China’s no-one-left-behind nationwide immunization blitz going into overdrive, Beijing has pinned hopes on the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group (SinoPharm), whose traditional inactivated shots are similar to the Sinovac ones but offer a higher immunogenicity and protection rate of about 79%, according to the World Health Organization.

The trial and approval of better, more efficacious formulas like China’s indigenous messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine are still much further down the road.  

SinoPharm has earlier this month commissioned the third phase of its Covid-19 vaccine factory in Beijing’s suburban Daxing district, arguably the world’s largest of its kind whose annual output can hit 3 billion vials, according to the drugmaker and state media reports. 

The new vaccine factory is, however, more like a mega incubation facility on the periphery of the Chinese capital, where legions of dishes cultivate the virus under a controlled environment. The virus is then inactivated using heat, formaldehyde, formalin or other chemicals to eliminate its ability to replicate, a process intended to keep it “intact” so when injected into bodies, the immune system can recognize it to trigger a response.  

Inside SinoPharm’s new vaccine plant in Beijing’s Daxing district where the Covid pathogen is cultivated. Photo: Handout

Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CDC), is quoted by Xinhua and the official Science and Technology Daily as saying that the reason why the West “opted to give up on” the traditional and time-tested attenuated and inactivated vaccines and instead went for new types like the mRNA was that Western nations “could not” build advanced vaccine plants to the stringent biosafety standards of a P3 facility, which is certified to deal with highly transmissible pathogenic factors.

Gao added that most of the existing plants operated by SinoPharm and Sinovac were indeed P3 labs repurposed as Covid “cultivation farms” and vaccine production facilities, with strict safety measures in place to eliminate any risks. 

SinoPharm’s latest vaccine factory, less than an hour by car from Beijing’s new Daxing International Airport, is compact and only occupies a plot of 3,600 square meters with four floors, according to a SinoPharm document viewed by Asia Times. 

Covid viral cultivation is said to be done in special reaction receptacles with temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide density closely monitored and controlled. These containers’ internal cellular structure is also the key to quickly propagating the virus and therefore ratcheting up vaccine output to reach 3 billion doses a year.  

SinoPharm president Liu Jingzhen assured reporters during a media event last month that the latest Daxing plant had been designed to be foolproof to “make any viral leakage impossible,” stressing that making inactivated vaccines against the virus would first require cultivating the pathogen in large quantities. 

He also revealed that the fully hermetic, highly automated P3 plant in Daxing contained negative pressure rooms and would never unleash the virus upon the capital city, because each and every valve, tube and piece of storage equipment had been built to the highest safety standards. 

“In the very unlikely event of a leakage, even with just a tiny drop of water containing the pathogen, an alarm system would be triggered in no time to spray disinfectant and antiseptic fluid and all viruses in the same room or compartment will instantly be obliterated,” said Liu.  

A SinoPharm worker in protective gear operates a cultivation tube at the new plant. Photo: Handout

Yang Xiaoming, president of SinoPharm subsidiary CNBG that operates the plant, also boasted new breakthroughs in virus inactivation that would preserve most of the Covid virus’s floral protuberances while rendering them harmless. 

He said in a CNBG corporate circular that keeping the virus “intact” in its original form could set off a stronger immune response and teach the body to better remember and recognize the pathogen, arguing that the new technique could also make the SinoPharm vaccine perform better than other drugs of the same type in neutralizing new strains. 

An immunization planning specialist with Shanghai’s CDC told Asia Times that it made sense to expand the output and use of the more effective vaccine from SinoPharm to gradually replace the Sinovac shots in continued inoculations. The expert said it was a stopgap measure, in the absence of mRNA vaccines, for more protection to somehow blunt the spillover of the Delta and other more contagious variants from overseas.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the specialist added that SinoParm’s shots were mostly reserved for senior cadres and members of the Chinese parliament when production was still limited in the first quarter of the year. He also said he hoped no corners had been cut when Beijing and SinoPharm were in a haste to build a new plant that crammed the usual two years of construction into about six months. 

He said, nonetheless, that inactivated vaccines tended to provide a shorter length of protection than live vaccines and would be more likely to require boosters to create long-term immunity. 

SinoPharm said all its plants had been “revving hot” to churn out shots to meet domestic and overseas orders. The National Health Commission said China had already donated or shipped 570 million doses to foreign recipients as of the end of June.  

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