Sinopharm’s WHO listing big win for global vaccination drive

Thursday, May 13th, 2021 20:01 |
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Photo/AFP

The World Health Organization (WHO) has finally granted the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine emergency use approval, paving the way for a more pronounced role by Beijing in vaccinating the world against Covid-19 disease. The approval makes China the only nonwestern country to have received WHO backing for its vaccines which now affirms the quality, safety, efficacy and accessibility of the commodities.

As the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus averred, the approval 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 the Sinopharm vaccine. This is significant given that China is strong champion of the COVAX and has previously pledged to share its vaccines with developing countries as a global public good.

The listing of the first Chinese vaccine by the WHO is particularly significant for African countries that are currently facing access challenges to the Western produced vaccines. The continent has heavily relied on the Indian produced Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which makes up over 90% of doses already supplied to the continent. Countries like Kenya got the first shipment of the vaccine to inoculate most vulnerable groups. India has since suspended export of the commodity as it races to save its own people from the sting of the virus.

The head of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention John Nkengasong, has warned that the Indian pandemic situation could easily play out in Africa, if the continent does not get the needed quantities of Covid-19 vaccines. Only 1.5% of Africa’s population has so far been vaccinated with a first dose, compared with 35% in Europe and 52% in the North America, according to Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

With 42 out of the 54 African countries relying on COVAX as the main source of vaccines, the approval of the Sinopharm vaccine now clears the way for China to supply the pledged 10 million doses to developing countries through COVAX; with headroom for additional purchases bilaterally and through multilateral avenues like the African Union's vaccine taskforce.

Like other Chinese vaccines, the ease of storage for the Sinopharm vaccine makes it an ideal commodity for the low-resourced economies; a huge advantage compared to western produced vaccines that require complex refrigeration facilities that are hard to come by in many parts of Africa.

Alongside the news of Sinopharm vaccine’s approval, Egypt has also announced that it will locally manufacture 2 million doses of Sinovac vaccine, another commodity by China; and ramp up production to 40 million doses in the first year. Through such strategic partnerships, Africa can shorten the wait for local vaccines manufacturing and improve prospects for a more sustained response against the Covid-19 pandemic.        

Despite its own domestic needs for the vaccines, China has demonstrated greater amity with other countries around the world in confronting the pandemic. Beijing has donated vaccines to over 80 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. In Africa, countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have all received donations of Covid-19 vaccines from China.

Even if COVAX were to optimally deliver on its promise to cover 20% of beneficiary country population; that would not be enough to jumpstart herd immunity. To make up for the difference, African countries will have to purchase extra 1 billion jabs to cover 60% of the population. The addition of Chinese vaccines to the WHO vault means that developing countries now have more options that have received the mark of quality from the world heath watchdog.

Chinese vaccines have another advantage relating to safety. Despite fears and concerns that have led to western governments halting administration of European or American produced vaccines, such concerns have not been raised with Chinese vaccine candidates. China should now be ready to ramp up production of the Sinopharm as well other vaccine as demand to meet the demand is sure to accelerate.

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