Rich countries are hogging supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, and some regions of the world may have to rely on drugs developed in China to defeat the pandemic. The question is, will they work?
There is no obvious reason to think not, but China has had vaccine scandals and its pharmaceutical companies have given little information, either about their final trials in humans or about the more than a million injections that they say they have already given. of an emergency vaccination plan.
Rich countries have reserved 9,000 million 12.000 million doses, mostly Western, which is expected to occur next year, while COVAX, a global initiative to ensure equitable access to vaccines against COVID-1 9 , has not reached its promised capacity of 2 billion doses.
For countries that have not yet secured a vaccine, China may be the only solution.
China has six candidates in the last phase of trials and is one of the few countries that can manufacture a vaccine on a large scale. Members of the government have announced a billion-dose capacity next year, and President Xi Jinping promised that Chinese vaccines would be a boon to the world.
The possibility of millions of people in other countries using its vaccines gives China the opportunity to repair the damage that the outbreak did to its reputation that escaped its borders, and to show the world that it can be an important scientific benchmark.
However, past scandals have reduced its own citizens’ confidence in its vaccines, and manufacturing and supply chain problems cast doubt on whether it can truly be a savior.
“There remains a question mark on how China can ensure the delivery of reliable vaccines,” said Joy Zhang, professor of ethics and emerging science at the University of Kent in Britain, pointing to China’s “lack of transparency in scientific data. and a checkered record in vaccine distribution ”.
Bahrain last week became the second country in the world to authorize a Chinese vaccine against COVID-19 , after the United Arab Emirates. Morocco plans to use Chinese vaccines in a massive immunization campaign that should begin this month. Chinese authorities were also waiting to receive the green light in Turkey, Indonesia and Brazil, while trials continued in more than a dozen countries, including Russia, Egypt and Mexico.
In some countries, Chinese vaccines were received with suspicion. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Chinese firm Sinovac’s vaccine candidate, without citing any evidence, and said the Brazilians would not act as “guinea pigs.”
Many experts praise China’s ability to produce vaccines.
“The studies seem to be well done,” said Jamie Triccas, head of immunology and infectious diseases at Sydney Medical School, referring to clinical trials published in scientific journals. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that.”
China has been strengthening its immunization programs for more than a decade. It has produced successful large-scale vaccines for its population, such as those for measles and hepatitis, said Jin Dong-yan, a professor of medicine at the University of Hong Kong.
“There are no large outbreaks in China of any of these diseases,” he said. “That means the vaccines are safe and effective.”
In the past decade, China has worked with the Gates Foundation and other agencies to improve the quality of its manufacture. The World Health Organization has pre-certified five Chinese vaccines for diseases other than COVID-19, allowing United Nations agencies to purchase them for other countries.
Among the companies that obtained this precertification are Sinovac and the state-owned Sinpharm, both leading developers of vaccines for COVID-19 .
However, the Wuhan Biological Products Institute, a Sinopharm affiliate developing one of its vaccine candidates for COVID-19 , was embroiled in a scandal in 2018.
Government inspectors found that the company, based in the city where the new coronavirus was first detected next year, had produced hundreds of thousands of ineffective doses of a combined diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine for a equipment failure.
That same year, Changsheng Biotechnology Co. was reported to have falsified data on a rabies vaccine.
In 2016, Chinese media revealed that two million doses of various children’s vaccines had been improperly stored and sold across the country for years.
Vaccination rates fell after those scandals.
“All my Chinese friends are skilled, well-off workers, and none of them will buy Chinese-made medicine. It is what you get, ”said Ray Yip, former national director of the Gates Foundation in China. He said he was one of the few who did not mind buying pharmaceuticals manufactured there.
China reformed its laws in 2017 and 2019 to tighten the vaccine storage protocol and increase inspections and fines for violations.
The nation’s top developers of COVID-19 vaccines have published some scientific findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. But international experts have questioned the way China recruited volunteers, the tracking system to identify potential side effects. Chinese companies and authorities have not released details.
Now, after the publication of data on the effectiveness of vaccines developed by Western companies Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, experts are waiting to see the Chinese results. The Emirati regulatory agency, where Sinopharm was tested, has said it appeared to be 86% effective, according to preliminary data from clinical trials. The Turkish government announced Thursday that Sinovac’s drug is 91.25% effective, according to preliminary data.
Sinopharm did not respond to a request for comment on the vaccine’s effectiveness. Sinovac and CanSino, another Chinese vaccine company, did not respond to requests for interviews.
For some people in countries where the pandemic does not seem to subside, the country of origin of the vaccine does not matter.
“I plan to put it on, the first one that comes, if it works out,” said Daniel Alves Santos, a cook at a restaurant in Rio de Janeiro. “And I hope God helps.”