China’s flagship vaccine has not yet passed its third phase of clinical trials.
While the global race to produce a vaccine against Covid-19 continues, China appears to have made huge strides, with one of its leading vaccine manufacturers, Sinovac, already making its way overseas, writes the British BBC.
A shipment of CoronaVac coronavirus vaccine from Beijing biopharmaceutical company Sinovac has already arrived in Indonesia in preparation for a mass vaccination campaign. Nearly two million doses are to be sent by January.
But the vaccine has not yet passed the third stage of clinical trials, which raises the question: What exactly do we know about this Chinese vaccine?
What is the difference between Sinovac and other vaccines?
CoronaVac is an inactivated vaccine that works by using killed viral particles to expose the body’s immune system to the virus without risking a serious disease response.
Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which means that part of the genetic code of the coronavirus is injected into the body, causing the body to start producing viral proteins, but not the entire virus, which is enough to prepare the immune system for an attack.
On paper, one of the main advantages of Sinovac is that it can be stored in a standard refrigerator at 2-8 degrees Celsius, just like the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is made from a genetically engineered virus that causes colds in chimpanzees.
The Moderna vaccine must be stored at -20C and the Pfizer vaccine at -70C.
This means that both the Sinovac vaccine and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine are much more useful for developing countries, which may not be able to store large amounts of vaccine at such low temperatures.
How effective is it?
It’s hard to say at this point. According to the scientific journal The Lancet, only the results of Phase I and Phase II trials of the CoronaVac vaccine are available today.
According to one of the authors of the article, Zhu Fengqai, these results are based on data from 144 Phase I participants and 600 Phase II participants. This means that the vaccine is “suitable for emergency use.”
In September, Sinovac reported that trials were conducted on more than 1,000 volunteers, and only “some of them felt minor fatigue or discomfort … no more than 5%.”
Late-stage trials began in October in Brazil, the country that came in second in the number of deaths from covid. Those trials were suspended for a while in November after a volunteer was reported dead, but resumed after it was determined that the deaths had nothing to do with the vaccine.
Sinovac’s partner in Brazil, the Butantan Institute, said it expects Sinovac to release the results of the trial by December 15. Professor Lo explains that it is difficult to comment on the effectiveness of the vaccine at this time, “given the limited information available.”
“Based on preliminary data … CoronaVac is probably an effective vaccine, but we really need to wait for the results of phase III trials,” he said. “These trials are randomized, blinded, placebo-controlled … with thousands of participants. This is the only way to prove that the vaccine is safe and effective for use at the population level.”
How many doses can be produced per year?
Sinovac will be able to produce 300 million doses a year in its newly built 20,000-square-meter plant, its chairman told CGTN television.
Like all other vaccines, it takes two doses to vaccinate, which means that the company can currently vaccinate only 150 million people a year. That’s a little more than a tenth of China’s population.
However, the Chinese vaccine is already in Indonesia. Sinovac has already made other deals with Turkey, Brazil and Chile.
Analysts point to China’s bid to win the vaccine diplomacy race, in which Chinese President Xi Jinping has reportedly pledged two billion dollars for Africa and also offered Latin American and Caribbean countries a one billion dollar loan to buy vaccines. It is unclear what the terms of such a deal might be.
“Beijing … will undoubtedly use the provision of this life-saving technology live for commercial and diplomatic gain,” analyst Jacob Mardell told ABC News. “It has what countries need. China will seek to characterize the provision of the vaccine as an act of charity.”
It is not known how much the Katay vaccine might cost, but earlier this year a BBC team in the Chinese city of Yiwu saw nurses giving injections for about 400 yuan ($60).
State firm Bio Farma in Indonesia said the Chinese vaccine would cost about 200,000 rupiah ($13.60) in the country. This is still much more expensive than AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which costs $4 per dose, but lower than Moderna’s vaccine, which costs $33 per dose.
Moderna said it intends to sell 500 million doses in 2021, and AstraZeneca said it will give out 700 million doses by the end of the first quarter of 2021.
“CoronaVac is a more traditional [vaccine] method that has been used successfully in many well-known vaccines, such as rabies,” Associate Professor Lo Dahai of Nanyang Technological University told the BBC. “mRNA vaccines are a new type of vaccine, and [today] there are no successful examples [of their] use in the population.”
What other Chinese vaccines are available?
Four Chinese vaccines are in the final stages of development.
One of them, Sinopharm, has already been given to almost one million people in China as part of a controversial emergency vaccination program. In addition, Sinopharm has yet to release data on its Phase III trials.
“It’s OK to wait for analysis of phase 3 trials before ramping up the vaccine program by issuing an emergency use permit,” Professor Dale Fisher of the National University of Singapore told CNBC earlier.
Professor Fisher said such a move was “unconventional,” adding that it would be “unacceptable” in the West.
The spread of the coronavirus in China itself has been contained. Life there is slowly but surely returning to the “new normal.
Sinopharm’s vaccine was registered in the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 9, after authorities there said an interim analysis showed it to be 86 percent effective in phase III trials.