Hu Yuwei and Zhao Yusha
While many central and western European countries, who put all faith in Western-produced COVID-19 vaccines, continue to scramble for scarce doses, those left behind have urged “it is time to trust Chinese vaccines.” As Turkey, Hungary, Bosnia and Serbia keep their options open to Chinese and Russian vaccines, more EU countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic have also expressed trust in Chinese vaccines as long as they win EU approval.
Observers said the shortage of doses finally prompted more Western countries to abandon “prejudice” and “ideological mistrust” regarding non-Western vaccines. Experts see Chinese vaccine as a promising alternative for many EU countries as Chinese-made inactivated vaccines can bring complementary advantages to Western mRNA vaccine technology.
China’s drug regulator on Saturday gave conditional approval for the mass use of Sinovac’s vaccine CoronaVac, China’s second after the Sinopharm jab. The move was seen to encourage CoronaVac’s emergency use approval (EUA) or registration in the international market. The two vaccines are at an very advanced stage on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) assessment in emergency use listing, an official from the WHO said Friday.
A source close to Sinopharm told the Global Times on Sunday that there was no word on any EU order negotiation with Sinopharm, but the Chinese company is open to all potential users.
At the request of the Pakistani military, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines donated by Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was delivered to Pakistan on Sunday. Pakistan’s military is the first foreign military to receive Chinese military vaccine aid.
The PLA also handed over a batch of COVID-19 vaccines to the Cambodian army on Sunday.
Raising hopes in the EU
As at least 28 countries have reached a purchase deal with China regarding COVID-19 vaccines, some European leaders have recently expressed their willingness to consider using Chinese vaccines despite existing political divergences or ideological opposition with China.
The Czech Republic may consider using vaccines not registered in the European Union to speed up vaccinations, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Friday on a trip to Hungary, which has given emergency approval to Russian and Chinese vaccines, Reuters reported.
Also, citing Serbia, which used Chinese vaccines to speed up vaccinations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that every COVID-19 vaccine is welcome in the European Union as the bloc is facing vaccine delivery difficulties.
Bjorn Nashan, Professor of Surgery and Director of the Clinic of Hepato-pancreatico-biliary Surgery and Transplantation in Germany told the Global Times that there is no valid scientific reason not to use Chinese vaccines in Europe, and previous reports of rejecting Chinese vaccines are just media hype to grab eyeballs. “The European point has always been, show us the data and upon this we can take action,” he added that delay in the delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines has certainly changed attitudes of some European countries.
Austria is ready to produce Chinese and Russian COVID-19 vaccines if given approval, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in a media interview on Sunday.
The chancellor pointed out that “this is about getting the safest vaccine as soon as possible, regardless of who developed it.” Kurz has stated that he is ready to get inoculated with the Russian or Chinese vaccine if they are approved in the EU.
“When it comes to vaccines, what matters is efficiency, safety and quick access, and not geopolitical strife,” Kurz stressed, quoted by the Austria Press Agency. He also criticized the slow bureaucratic work of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on approving new vaccines.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday that COVID-19 vaccines from Russia and China could be approved for use in the bloc if they “show all the data.” Her remarks came after the EU faced criticism for slow-paced vaccinations amid supply shortfalls.
Procedure allows, but prejudice hinders
Political estrangement and the worry over failure of Western-led efforts to fight the pandemic may be main reason why the some Western countries have been reluctant to consider Russian and Chinese vaccines, said Chinese observers.
French President Emmanuel Macron conceded that China’s early “diplomatic successes” in distributing vaccines to other countries could be seen as “a little bit humiliating for us as (Western) leaders,” during a talk to the Atlantic Council think-tank
According to the procedure, the government of procuring countries can ask for orders directly from the Chinese company and require the Chinese company to submit a complete data report for the drug authorities to assess the eligibility of the vaccine for emergency use, a source close to a leading Chinese vaccine producer told the Global Times on Sunday. But the source did not confirm any potential orders from the EU.
Feng Duojia, president of the China Vaccine Industry Association told the Global Times that China will definitely offer help to European countries if they pop up the request. The key to such cooperation is whether the EU recognizes Chinese vaccines.
Exporting vaccines to Europe needs recognition first from the WHO; then business negotiation between countries will follow once the WHO grants a “permit” for the vaccine.
Now many populous western European countries are in urgent need for vaccines as they are short in supply. Yet European countries have a high benchmark for importing vaccines, and a strict scrutiny process. So, if they eye cooperation, both European countries and China will need to communicate more on areas such as vaccine technology and quality control, vaccine experts said.
Recognition from the WHO can be sometimes skipped in urgent situations, as long as vaccine companies can provide sufficient data to prove that the vaccine is efficient.
However, another Shanghai-based expert Tao Lina suggested ideological prejudice is a root cause in EU’s hesitancy over non-Western vaccines, whereas the EU’s request for “sufficient data” is more of a barrier set up for Chinese vaccines.
Chinese Sinovac’s phase-III efficacy data for different groups observed in double-blinded, placebo-controlled trials have been officially released in both Brazil and in China before. Another leading producer Sinopharm has also announced its overall protection rate upon the drug regulator’s confirmation.
The EU should understand that it is not China who is desperate to export vaccines, Tao said. “Beijing only wishes to ease Europe’s dire need for vaccines to quell their rife virus transmission, so setting barriers will ‘only backfire on Europe itself’.”
Chinese drug scientists have repeatedly stressed that Chinese-dominated inactivated vaccines and popular Western mRNA vaccines are not competing, but complementary, in terms of production, capacity, and target population.
As some EU countries reported post-inoculation deaths for seniors, experts advise traditional inactivated vaccines – such as Sinovac’s dose with recent interim data showing a safe and stable efficacy to seniors over 60 – would be a potentially reliable alternative if they wish to vaccinate the vulnerable elderly first.
Indonesia has approved Sinovac Biotech’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in the elderly, a letter from the food and drug agency shows, potentially changing the country’s strategy which has prioritized its working population first, Reuters reported on Saturday.
The easier transportation requirements of inactivated vaccines makes it a hopeful resolution for some EU countries with strained or limited cold-chain facilities, according to observers.
A vaccine industry insider told the Global Times on Sunday that the cost of inactivated vaccines mainly lies in its request for the Biosafety level 3 lab for production. However, developed European countries with more P3 laboratories are able to produce and process Chinese vaccines locally to control costs and make doses more affordable.