China authorized its first homegrown COVID-19 vaccine for general use Thursday, adding another shot that could see wide use in poorer countries as the virus surges back around the globe.
The two-dose vaccine from state-owned Sinopharm is the first approved in China. The go-ahead comes shortly after the country launched a program to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year holiday in February.
It also comes one day after British regulators authorized AstraZeneca’s inexpensive and easy-to-handle vaccine.
Officials have said the vaccine standards were developed in “close co-operation” with the World Health Organization. Securing WHO’s so-called pre-qualification could go some way toward assuring the rest of the world about the quality of Chinese vaccines, which already face a reputation problem back home. It would also open the path for the shots to be distributed in the global vaccine consortium, COVAX, and potentially in countries that don’t have their own regulatory agencies.
China is eager to ship its vaccines globally, driven by a desire to repair the damage to its image caused by the pandemic that started a year ago in the central city of Wuhan.
Sinopharm says preliminary data from last-stage trials had shown the vaccine to be 79.3% effective. Experts say data such as the size of the control group and how many were vaccinated is missing.
Sinopharm, which has another shot under development, is one of at least five Chinese developers that are in a global race to create vaccines for the disease that has killed more than 1.8 million people. While the Pfizer and Moderna shots have been greeted with much fanfare in the West, those shots must be stored at ultra-cold or freezer temperatures, complicating distribution.
Sinopharm vaccine, like AstraZeneca’s, might be easier to handle for countries around the world because it can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures.
The two shots, along with the Russian Sputnik, are expected to supply much of the developing world. This means that the cost will also be significant. AstraZeneca is expected to cost around $ 2.50 per dose, while Russia has said its doses will be priced at $ 10 for the global market. Pfizer’s vaccine costs around $ 20, while Moderna’s is $ 15 to $ 25, based on agreements with the US government.
Chinese officials have declined to name a particular award and have made conflicting statements about it. One official said it would be affordable for the Chinese public, but another stepped in to clarify that it would be free. President Xi Jinping previously pledged to donate a vaccine made in China as a public good to the world.
The Sinopharm shot is already in mass production, although officials have not answered questions about the current capacity. It has already been approved in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and is expected to be used in Morocco soon.
Other countries have also purchased doses of another Chinese vaccine candidate, manufactured by Sinovac Biotech. Turkey received shipments of 3 million doses this week, and Indonesia and Brazil also bought it.
Sinopharm is one of at least five Chinese developers in a global race to create vaccines for the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide. China has reported 4,782 deaths.