China producing millions of doses but questions over vaccine efficacy remain

·4 min read
Colombian footballer William Tesillo receives the Sinovac jab - AFP
Colombian footballer William Tesillo receives the Sinovac jab - AFP

A Mongolian official has insisted that Chinese-made vaccines are effective as it – and other countries using vaccines made by the People’s Republic – see rising cases despite high vaccination rates.

On Wednesday Mongolia reported 1,312 new cases of the disease and an analysis by the New York Times showed that daily infections have risen by more than 70 per cent in the last two weeks.

Mongolia has outdone many more developed nations with its swift vaccine roll out – by June 8 half its scattered population was fully vaccinated and nearly two thirds had received one dose. The country has leveraged its position between China and Russia to secure 4.3 million doses of vaccine, with the bulk of supply made up of China’s Sinopharm jab.

Bolormaa Enkhbat, an economic and development policy adviser to the Mongolian prime minister, told the Telegraph that the rise in cases was due to the country coming out of lockdown, not because the vaccines were ineffective.

She said that it took 14 days after the second dose for the vaccine to take full effect so, with the country’s main vaccination effort ramping up in early May, it would take time for all those who have been vaccinated to enjoy immunity.

“Businesses such as restaurants and shops are open but we are telling people to wait until 14 days after their second vaccination before visiting,” said Ms Enkhbat.

The World Health Organization gave emergency approval to China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac jabs in recent weeks. Trial data showed the Sinopharm jab has an efficacy rate of 79 per cent, while Sinovac has efficacy of 51 per cent – although it is much higher against severe disease.

“I believe in science and I believe in the WHO recommendations. This is a WHO approved vaccine, just like Pfizer, just like Moderna and just like AstraZeneca. I absolutely trust the WHO and the Sinopharm vaccine,” said Ms Enkhbat.

She said just 0.6 per cent of the population who received both doses and observed 14 days tested positive for Covid.

The Chinese government has embarked on a sophisticated vaccine diplomacy drive, sharing doses with countries that hosted trials of their vaccines, including many in the Middle East and South America.

And while much of the rest of the world struggles with vaccine supply, China is now vaccinating a staggering 20 million people a day. Of the 35 million people vaccinated daily, more than half of those are in China.

The country has already supplied around 350 million doses worldwide and, with the WHO approval, should be able to supply more.

According to the journal Nature the country expects to have manufactured three billion doses by the end of this year and five billion by the end of 2022.

However, question marks have been raised over the jabs’ efficacy, with countries such as Chile and the Seychelles also seeing rising cases alongside high vaccination rates.

On Thursday the Chilean capital Santiago went back into lockdown, even though more than half the population have been fully vaccinated. Cases have surged by 17 per cent nationwide in the last two weeks and by 25 per cent in the Santiago area.

And earlier this week Bahrain announced that it would be offering a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine to high risk people who had already received two shots of the Chinese Sinopharm jabs. Cases spiked in the Middle East country in May, despite the fact that nearly 50 per cent of the population had had at least one dose of vaccine. Cases have started to fall over recent days.

Saudi Arabia has also told travellers from Pakistan that it will not accept vaccination certificates from people who have had Chinese-made jabs.

The Chinese vaccines are based on an inactivated virus – an older technology – which is less effective than the mRNA technology of the Pfizer and Moderna jabs. However, no studies have been done to compare the vaccines head to head.

Ben Cowling, professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong, said the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines were highly effective against severe disease, “although somewhat less effective against mild disease”.

Real-world data released earlier this week by the Uruguay government showed the Sinovac jab reduced deaths by 95 per cent and intensive care admissions by 92 per cent. It reduced infections by 61 per cent.

“In locations that have high coverage of inactivated vaccines, infections that have occurred in vaccinated persons tend to be very mild, meaning that the vaccines are working as expected,” said Prof Cowling.

Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, said real-world data showed that the vaccines have an effectiveness ranging from 50 to 90 per cent.

“But the overall effectiveness seems to be more reliably in the range 50 to 60 per cent - and this is only against the original Wuhan virus - and most likely achieved only after two doses,” he said.

Against the various variants circulating he believes the effectiveness may be lower, he said.

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