Two Arab nations have become the first countries to approve a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine, a significant boost for China’s plans to roll out its vaccines worldwide. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) approved a vaccine developed by Chinese state-owned Sinopharm on 9 December, and Bahrain followed days later. But researchers say a lack of public data on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine could hinder the company’s plans to distribute the vaccine in a range of other countries.
The Sinopharm vaccine is probably safe and effective and could be a great help in fighting the pandemic, says Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. But he notes a lack of available clinical-trial data, and adds that confidence in the vaccine’s safety and efficacy will be key to its successful international distribution.
“Chinese state-run companies, like Sinopharm, can produce billions of doses. They have the capacity and expertise,” he says. “They need to have an open and transparent system, but they are not good at doing that,” he adds.
The UAE and Bahrain are also the first countries to grant full approval to sell a COVID-19 vaccine. Russian officials have licensed two vaccines, but the approvals are conditional and subject to the results of ongoing phase III trials. In China, Sinopharm’s vaccine has been widely deployed under emergency-use authorization, but full approval is expected very soon. The United States and the United Kingdom have issued emergency authorizations for a COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer of New York City and BioNTech of Mainz, Germany.
UAE regulators said in a press release that they had approved an inactivated vaccine developed by Sinopharm’s Beijing Institute of Products. The approval was based on company data stating that the efficacy of the two-dose vaccine was 86% in final-stage testing, including a trial in 31,000 people in the UAE, according to the press release. The vaccine had been granted emergency-use authorization in September. Bahrain officials did not state whether they approved the same Sinopharm vaccine, but it is thought to be the same jab, because they, too, reported 86% efficacy. Some 7,700 people participated in Sinopharm trials there.
The UAE press release also states that 99% of those vaccinated developed neutralizing antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 and that the vaccine prevented moderate and severe disease in everyone vaccinated.