Trials in the United Arab Emirates have shown that China’s Sinopharm vaccine has 86% efficacy. So what is the Chinese treatment, where is it being trialled and will it challenge the vaccines being developed in western countries?

a close up of a sign: Photograph: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

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Photograph: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

a close up of a sign: Sinopharm is a state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company and is trialling two Covid-19 vaccines in countries including UAe, Argentina and Morocco.

© Photograph: Tingshu Wang/Reuters
Sinopharm is a state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company and is trialling two Covid-19 vaccines in countries including UAe, Argentina and Morocco.

What is the Sinopharm vaccine?

Sinopharm Group is a state-owned pharmaceutical company with two vaccine candidates among China’s five experimental treatment in international final stage trials. The vaccines are not being trialled in China because the domestic prevalence of the virus is so low. Sinopharm’s vaccine and bioscience subsidiary is the China National Biotec Group Co Ltd (CNBG). Public statements about Sinopharm vaccines do not appear to clarify which of the two candidates are being discussed.

Sinopharm is among two Chinese pharmaceutical companies (the other is fellow frontrunner Sinovac) to have created their vaccine via the more traditional method of using an inactive virus to trigger an immune response. They are more difficult to manufacture quickly than the others, and have the potential to cause an imbalanced immune response, but have shown historic success.

Is it more effective that the other ones?

Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have both reported 95% efficacy with their vaccines, while AstraZeneca’s 70% efficacy in full trials rose to 90% for the group who were given a half dose of the vaccine initially, followed by a full dose four weeks later.

This week the United Arab Emirates said clinical trials of Sinopharm’s vaccine – including 31,000 volunteers across 125 nationalities in the federation of sheikdoms – found 86% efficacy.

Last month Sinopharm announced that about 1 million people had been given emergency doses, and “only individual patients have had some mild symptoms”, but the lack of transparency has prompted some concern among health experts.

Professor Terry Nolan, head of the Peter Doherty Institute’s vaccine and immunisation research group, told the Guardian the statement, taken at face value, was “a pretty good early indication about the safety of one of the vaccine types”.

“And frankly it’s the type which would be more likely to have adverse effects,” he said referring to development method of using an inactive virus.

China has not yet published any late-stage information about any of its vaccine candidates, despite its rollout. Without that data, it is unclear how safe and effective any of the experimental Chinese vaccines are.

Where is it being used?

A Sinopharm vaccine has been approved for emergency use in a few countries and the company has been conducting late-stage clinical trials in 10 nations including Argentina, the UAE and Morocco. It has also been trialled in Peru but the country suspended tests due to a “serious adverse event” that occurred with one of the volunteers for the study, the Peruvian government said on Saturday.

In September, the UAE was the first country outside China to approve emergency use of a Sinopharm vaccine. Jamal Al Kaabi, a senior UAE health official told CNN this week almost 100,000 volunteers had received the vaccine so far.

In Bahrain the vaccine is now available to frontline healthcare workers after 7,700 people participated in clinical trials, and Egypt received its first shipment of a Chinese coronavirus vaccine on Thursday. Morocco is also planning to rely on the Sinopharm jab to meet its ambitious aim to vaccinate 80% of its adults.

China has made potentially conflicting promises to a number of developing countries and regions of priority access to its vaccines, in what some analysts have dubbed “vaccine diplomacy”, but they have not specified which ones.

In October, China announced it was joining Covax, the international initiative aimed at ensuring equitable global access.

How many doses are being made?

Specific information on doses is not available. Some media reports have said Sinopharm’s subsidiary could supply 100m doses this year, potentially expanding capacity to produce 300m. Last week health authorities said China would have 600m doses ready for market by the end of this year.

At a briefing in Wuhan, Wang Junzhi, deputy head of an expert task force on vaccine development, did not say which company’s vaccines would be rolled out but described them as “inactive” vaccines, narrowing it down to those being developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac.

Additional reporting by AP

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