Saturday, January 16, 2021

Chinese COVID-19 vaccines are here – for better or for worse

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This is the web version of Eastworld, Fortune’s Asian business and technology-focused newsletter. Subscribe here to get future editions to your inbox.

Grady McGregor replaces Clay Chandler.

On Tuesday, the world rejoiced when 90-year-old British grandmother Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive an injection of a fully tested COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech.

But the UK was not the only country to deploy a vaccine candidate this week.

The United Arab Emirates approved the vaccine by a Chinese state-owned drug maker on Wednesday Sinopharm for wide national distribution and claimed that the vaccine 86% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections after analysis of data from phase III trials.

The move was a signal that Chinese vaccine makers are not far behind their Western counterparts – Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca – who appeared to cross the finish line first by releasing promising Phase III trial data.

But among scientists, the UAE’s announcement has raised more questions on Sinopharm’s vaccine as the answers. The UAE has not disclosed the data from the Phase III trial to the public, and unlike western vaccine makers, Sinopharm has not even publicly acknowledged that its vaccine is approved. A spokesperson for a Sinopharm subsidiary in Hong Kong refused Fortune request for comments and a spokesperson in Beijing hanged on the New York Times when he called the news.

Sinopharm is a state-owned company that appears to have little interest in transparency and openly flouts compliance with certain international vaccine development standards. In October, Sinopharm Chairman Liu Jingzhen proclaimed that the company had already distributed its vaccine to nearly a million people in China ahead of the conclusion of clinical trials under China’s controversial emergency use program.

One of Sinopharm’s Chinese counterparts, private vaccine maker Sinovac, is more transparent, but it may have a different set of issues to overcome.

Sinovac is currently testing its candidate in phase III trials in Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, and has committed to join scientific protocols. The company also published the results of its Phase II trial in a peer-reviewed medical journal, something Sinopharm did not do. But Sinovac’s stock has been suspended on the Nasdaq for more than a year as part of a never-ending corporate governance battle. And in 2016, Sinovac founder Yin Weidong admitted to pay bribes at the top of Chinese drug regulator Yin Hongzhang in exchange for approving Sinovac’s drug applications. Yin Hongzhang was sentenced to ten years in prison for bribery, but Sinovac has not been charged for his role in the bribery case.

But despite all the faults of Sinopharm and Sinovac, they can fill the holes left by western vaccine makers.

The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are all based on inactivated forms of the virus, which means they can be stored at around the temperature of a home refrigerator (2 to 8 degrees Celsius) and are more accessible in countries with low returned. like indonesia, where setting up expensive ultra-cold shipping and storage networks seems nearly impossible. British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca’s vaccine also doesn’t require cold chain networks for distribution, but even after AstraZeneca released its provisional Phase III data in a peer-reviewed medical journal this week, scientists say lingering questions about the vaccine’s effectiveness may force the company to conduct further trials before its candidate can be widely used.

In November, the Nikkei Asian Review released a map showing 26 countries that have entered into agreements with Chinese vaccine makers or agreed to conduct phase III trials of Chinese vaccines. It is a constellation of primarily developing countries across Asia, South America, the Middle East, and North Africa, perhaps foreshadowing a divide between countries – those who use Chinese vaccines by compared to those who depend on Western vaccines.

“I think we’ll see a world divided in terms of vaccine use,” Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, Told Fortune in October. “You will find that [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries will prefer vaccines made in the United States, and many developing countries will have no choice but to use vaccines made in China. “

More Eastworld news below.

Grady mcgregor
grady.mcgregor@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Naomi Xu Elegant. Reach her atnaomi.elegant@fortune.com.

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