By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan on Friday approved China's CanSino Biologics Inc's (CanSinoBIO) COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, Health Minister Faisal Sultan said, the fourth candidate authorized in the South Asian nation of 220 million.
Pakistan, largely reliant on the GAVI/WHO COVAX initiative for poorer nations, has also allowed private companies to import coronavirus vaccines and has agreed to exempt such imports from price caps.
"Yes, correct," Sultan texted Reuters after being asked if the Drug Regulation Authority had approved the vaccine.
China's Sinopharm, AstraZeneca and Russia's Sputnik V have also received authorisation.
Pakistan is the second country to approve CanSinoBio after Mexico.
Mexico has signed a deal with CanSino for at least 8 million doses. Pakistan, according to Sultan, could receive "in the range of tens of millions" of doses.
CanSinoBIO last week released interim efficacy results from a multi-country trial, which included Pakistan, showing 65.7% efficacy in preventing symptomatic coronavirus cases and a 90.98% success rate in stopping severe infections.
In the Pakistani subset, efficacy of the CanSinoBIO vaccine at preventing symptomatic cases was 74.8% and 100% at preventing severe disease.
The decision to allow commercial imports of the vaccine with an exemption on upper price caps has sparked criticism.
"This step will deepen inequality in society at a time when there is a need to have widespread coverage," former health minister Zafar Mirza told Reuters. "It's not a good public policy to make it solely the rich can afford to be vaccinated."
Pakistan has recorded more than 550,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 12,000 deaths but has yet to receive any of the 17 million doses it is expected to get through the COVAX initiative.
The country earlier this month launched a vaccination drive with 500,000 doses of Sinopharm donated by longtime ally China to give to frontline healthcare workers as priority.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Additional Reporting by Umar Farooq in Islamabad; Editing by John Stonestreet, Alex Richardson and Nick Macfie)