A Chinese Covid-19 Vaccine Has Proved Effective, Its Maker Says
A Chinese pharmaceutical company said Wednesday that an early analysis of clinical trial results showed that one of its coronavirus vaccines was effective. This announcement sent a positive signal for the global adoption of Chinese vaccines, but important details were missing.
The company, a state-controlled company called Sinopharm, said a vaccine candidate from the Beijing Biological Products Institute had an efficacy rate of 79 percent, based on an interim analysis of Phase 3 trials. Sinopharm said it had filed an application with Chinese regulators for wide use of the vaccine.
If backed up, the results will support claims Chinese officials have made in recent days that the country’s vaccines are safe and effective. Even without official government approval, the authorities have already carried out mass vaccinations that contradict industry norms. They plan to vaccinate 50 million people in China by mid-February, when hundreds of millions are expected for the New Year holiday.
But Sinopharm’s announcement, which was only a few sentences long, failed to provide a breakdown of the results and left many questions unanswered, adding to a lack of clarity that has been tracking China’s coronavirus vaccine development for months.
China’s drive to develop a home-grown vaccine speaks to the country’s technological and diplomatic ambitions. A successful vaccine would support the country’s claim to be a peer and rival to the United States and other developed countries in the biomedical sciences.
The Sinopharm vaccine results show that it is less effective than others approved in other countries. Still, the results are well above the 50 percent threshold that makes a vaccine effective in the eyes of the medical establishment.
Two other coronavirus vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech already have an effectiveness rate of around 95 percent. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine has been approved in more than 40 countries. Moderna’s vaccine has been approved in the US while other countries are evaluating the trial results. Russia has announced that its Sputnik V vaccine has a 91 percent effectiveness rate and has launched a mass vaccination campaign.
Beijing has relied heavily on its vaccines promise to strengthen relationships with developing countries that are vital to China’s interests. Officials have traveled the world offering Chinese vaccines as a “global public good,” a magic offensive the United States may want to counter, especially if the campaign invades their backyard.
The political stance in the race for a vaccine is particularly high for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, whose authoritarian rule was criticized for stifling information and downplaying the virus when it first surfaced in Wuhan city late last year.
A successful vaccine, if quickly made available to the world, could help repair the party’s global image and that of its leader Xi Jinping. Chinese companies have said their vaccine would be cheaper and easier to ship, which could be a significant incentive for them in developing countries if detected.
Chinese vaccines can be greeted with other questions. Scientists said the headlines published by Sinopharm were encouraging, but the lack of supporting data made it difficult to independently evaluate the results. Sinopharm did not disclose the size of the study population or any information about serious side effects, data points that scientists look for in such publications.
Dec. 30, 2020, 5:08 p.m. ET
“Each of these vaccines is information, but the Chinese companies have provided even less information than the Russian companies,” said Dr. Kim Mulholland, pediatrician at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne. Australia.
“For the Russian vaccines at least, we were told the number of cases and the evidence that their vaccine was effective,” said Dr. Mulholland, who has been involved in overseeing many vaccine trials, including those for a Covid-19 vaccine.
Michael Baker, professor in the Department of Global Health at the University of Otago at Wellington, advisor to the New Zealand government, said that while Sinopharm’s early numbers looked promising, it was difficult to know for sure without further details.
“It’s pretty easy on the details,” he said. “One question is what markets do you want these vaccines in, because if you want a global market you obviously have to provide all of these details.”
Details on the effectiveness of another Chinese vaccine candidate from Sinovac, a private vaccine maker based in Beijing, have also been released piecemeal.
The lack of detailed information on the safety and effectiveness of Chinese vaccines did not deter the country’s officials from administering them to the public. Officials in several provinces and cities say that with an ongoing vaccination campaign, they are focusing on what China calls “key priority groups” – doctors, hotel workers, border control personnel and food storage and transport staff, and travelers.
Chinese officials and corporations had already administered Chinese-made vaccines to more than a million people in China, most of which were made by Sinopharm. The campaign was criticized by scientists from overseas who said they were concerned that authorities did not closely monitor people after receiving injections outside of clinical trials.
For China, a vaccine that can help protect its 1.4 billion people is critical to its plans to revitalize the economy.
The country has wiped out the coronavirus with a combination of restrictions on foreign arrivals, mass testing, and tight neighborhood lockdowns if cases are discovered. However, officials remain concerned that winter could spark a new wave of infections and hope that a widespread vaccine can help prevent a resurgence and prepare the country for the resumption of regular travel and trade.
Sinovac and Sinopharm use inactivated coronaviruses to make their vaccines – a proven method that goes back over 130 years. Companies use chemicals to disable the virus’ genes so it cannot replicate. However, the inactivated coronavirus can cause the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against it. In comparison, Moderna and Pfizer are taking a revolutionary gene-based approach that has never been approved for widespread use.
Experts say there are downsides inactivated vaccines like those from Sinovac and Sinopharm. You need to start with large amounts of live coronavirus samples, which can pose a biosecurity risk. Once the living samples are inactivated, an additional manufacturing step is required to ensure that none of them survive treatment.
Another benefit of the vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer is that they are faster to manufacture and are considered more stable than traditional vaccines. Pfizer estimates it can produce up to 1.3 billion cans by 2021, while Moderna is projected to be able to produce 500 million to one billion cans.
The Chinese government has promised to produce 610 million cans by the end of the year and expects to produce more than a billion cans in the next year. Several large countries, such as Brazil and Indonesia, where Chinese companies have conducted trials, have each received more than a million doses of Sinovac vaccines. Turkey has ordered 50 million cans.
People who had previously been vaccinated in China said the two-dose regimen costs around $ 60 to $ 150. According to reports from people who received the Sinovac vaccine, the company charges about $ 30 per dose. Sinopharm says the cost of two doses should be less than $ 150. The government has announced that it will not make the vaccine free.
Elsie Chen contributed to the coverage.