Coronavirus: 1 million Chinese injected with Sinopharm vaccine under emergency use scheme

  • ‘There has not been a single case of a serious adverse event,’ chairman of state-owned company says
  • Authorities in Zhejiang say members of the public have also been given a Covid-19 vaccine developed by private firm Sinovac Biotec

Almost 1 million Chinese have been given an experimental Covid-19 vaccine developed by the state-owned Sinopharm under the government’s emergency use scheme, the company’s chairman said.

China is one of just two countries, along with Russia, known to have used so-called vaccine candidates – products that are still undergoing clinical trials to test their efficacy and safety – to inoculate its citizens.

“In terms of emergency use, the vaccines were applied to nearly a million people and there has not been a single case of a serious adverse event. People have had only mild symptoms,” Liu Jingzhen, chairman of China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), said in an interview with a Sichuan-based digital media company that was published on Wednesday.

“Until now, all our progress, from research to clinical trials to production and emergency use, we have been leading the world,” he said.

Besides the recipients of the Sinopharm jabs, authorities in Zhejiang said they had made a Covid-19 vaccine developed by the privately owned pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotec available to high-risk groups in the east China province under the emergency use scheme.

Exactly how many citizens have received the jabs is unknown, but local and foreign media reports showed images of people lining up outside disease control and prevention centres to receive them.

Sinopharm’s announcement of 1 million recipients came after the company said in September that hundreds of thousands of people had already been given its vaccine candidates, which use an inactivated virus unable to replicate in human cells to trigger immune responses.

To justify its authorisation of an unproven vaccine, Beijing said the products’ use had been restricted to high-risk individuals, though that included not only obvious groups like frontline health professionals, but also school, supermarket and public transport workers.

Pharmaceutical companies around the world have been working on Covid-19 vaccines for months. On Wednesday, German company BioNTech and American firm Pfizer announced that their product had achieved 95 per cent efficacy in its final clinical trials involving more than 43,000 people.

Two days earlier, US company Moderna said the interim results of the phase three trials of its Covid-19 vaccine showed it to have an efficacy rate of 94.5 per cent.

Both products scored well above the 50 per cent threshold required by regulators, which used the efficacy of flu shots as a reference point.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Wednesday that authorisation and distribution of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could start in weeks, and that the US would have 40 million doses of the two vaccines ready by the end of the year.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, said in an interview with CNN that he was expecting “a large number of people” to be vaccinated by April next year.

While the interim results of final stage clinical trials of the Chinese vaccines have yet to be released, Liu said last week they would be available soon and that the findings were “better than expected”.

Following the breakthroughs by foreign products, Gao Fu, the head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, on Thursday sought to promote China’s vaccine candidates.

“Recently, Pfizer and Moderna said their vaccines were very effective, but please trust me, the Chinese vaccines are very effective too,” he said during a webinar.

But the foreign products still had questions to answer, he said.

“If there are vaccines, can neutralising antibodies protect you? Can the data given by Pfizer and Moderna prove that?”

Gao also asked whether the antibodies could reach the lungs and if there would be antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE), which refers to the phenomenon that the vaccine actually makes it easier for the virus to enter host cells.

Chinese scientists have said the chance of ADE happening with the Chinese vaccine candidates is very low.

A study published on Tuesday in medical journal The Lancet showed that the inactivated vaccine produced by Sinovac generated a quick immune response in its first two stages of trials. The level of antibodies generated was lower than in recovered patients, and also in the trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

But scientists say only the results of final-stage trials can show if, and what level of, antibodies can protect people from Covid 19.

On Thursday, Turkey announced it would sign a contract within days to buy at least 20 million doses of a Covid-19 candidate vaccine from Sinovac, in addition to its talks with Pfizer.

“We will be able to procure at least 10 million doses of the Chinese vaccine in December. We want to increase this number. It will be just as much in January, too,” Health Minister Fahrettin Koca was quoted as saying by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

If the deal goes through, Turkey will be the second buyer of Chinese vaccines, after Brazil.

Additional reporting by Reuters