GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) approved a COVID-19 vaccine from China’s state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm for emergency use on Friday, a boost to Beijing’s push for a big role in inoculating the world.
The vaccine, one of two main Chinese coronavirus vaccines that have been given to hundreds of millions of people in China and elsewhere, is the first developed by a non-Western country to win WHO backing.
It is also the first time the WHO has given emergency use approval to a Chinese vaccine for any infectious disease. Earlier this week, separate WHO experts had expressed concern about the quality of data the company provided on side effects.
A WHO emergency listing is a signal to national regulators that a product is safe and effective. It also allows it to be included in COVAX, a global programme to provide vaccines mainly for poor countries, which has hit supply problems.
“This expands the list of COVID-19 vaccines that COVAX can buy, and gives countries confidence to expedite their own regulatory approval, and to import and administer a vaccine,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing.
Senior WHO adviser Bruce Aylward said it would be up to Sinopharm to say how many doses of its vaccine it can provide to the programme, but added: “They are looking at trying to provide substantial support, make substantial doses available while at the same time of course trying to serve China’s population.”
The WHO had already given emergency approval to COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and, last week, Moderna.
The decision to approve Sinopharm’s vaccine was taken by WHO’s technical advisory group, which began meeting on April 26 to review the latest clinical data as well as Sinopharm’s manufacturing practices.
“Its easy storage requirements make it highly suitable for low-resource settings,” a WHO statement said.
Tedros said that, following the approval, its separate Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) had recommended that adults over 18 receive two doses of the Sinopharm vaccine.
“On the basis of all available evidence, WHO recommends the vaccine for adults 18 years and older, in a two-dose schedule with a spacing of three to four weeks,” the WHO statement said.
The vaccine, developed by Beijing Biological Products Institute, a unit of Sinopharm subsidiary China National Biotec Group, has an estimated efficacy of 79% for all age groups, it said.
However, it added: “Few older adults (over 60 years) were enrolled in clinical trials, so efficacy could not be estimated in this age group.”
The WHO has said it could reach a decision on China’s other main COVID-19 vaccine, made by Sinovac Biotech, next week. The technical experts reviewed it on Wednesday.
Arnaud Didierlaurent, chair of WHO’s technical advisory group, told the press conference: “We have started to review the report from Sinovac. We actually requested additional information to the manufacturer … which we hope to receive very soon to make a decision.”
China has deployed around 65 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine and more than 200 million doses of the Sinovac shot. Both have been exported to many countries, particularly in Latin America, Asia and Africa, many of which have had difficulty securing supplies of vaccines developed in the West.
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