China just approved its first COVID-19 vaccine as it races to inoculate the world’s biggest population

A medical worker taking a swab sample from a resident to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Shenyang, in China’s northeast Liaoning province, on Thursday. STR/AFP via Getty Images
  • China has approved its first coronavirus vaccine for domestic use.
  • Conditional approval has been granted to a vaccine developed by the state-controlled Sinopharm, which claims 79% efficacy but has not published key details.
  • China wants to vaccinate 50 million people by mid-February, The New York Times reported.
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China has granted conditional approval to its first vaccine for general domestic use against COVID-19, though its rollout may be marred by questions over the lack of efficacy data it’s disclosed publicly.

The shot has been developed by the state-controlled pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm, which announced 79% efficacy for the vaccine on Wednesday. That is lower than the efficacy of Western vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which boasted efficacy rates in late-stage trials of 95% and 94% respectively.

While the 79% figure is still well above the level experts around the world have deemed acceptable, Reuters noted inconsistencies between that number and findings in other countries. The same vaccine has been approved by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which announced an 86% efficacy rate for it. Per the Financial Times, there has been no public explanation for the discrepancy, and neither Sinopharm, nor Bahrain, nor the UAE’s regulators have released details of their analysis.

“We still have not seen key details, such as the number of trial participants and infections in Phase 3 trials for the vaccine,” Dong-Yan Jin, a professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, told Reuters.

He added that China’s regulators would have access to such information, saying: “If the vaccine wants to take a share in the global market, especially in developed countries, more data is necessary. If the vaccine could win approval in the United States, or European Union, where the regulatory bars are higher than in China and in UAE, more people would trust it.”

China was the epicentre of the initial coronavirus outbreak at the start of the year. Tough lockdowns and other restrictions have helped keep the country’s known death toll to just 4,781 and infections below 96,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The worldwide death toll is above 1.8 million.

Announcing the conditional approval on Thursday, Chen Shifei, the deputy commissioner of China’s National Medical Products Administration, said the “known benefits of Sinopharm’s new inactivated coronavirus vaccine are bigger than the known and potential risks.”

China has already vaccinated more than 1 million workers with jabs authorised for emergency use, but it faces a major challenge in inoculating the bulk of its 1.3 billion population. According to The New York Times, China wants to vaccinate 50 million people by February, when millions are expected to travel to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

China plans to focus its first round of inoculations on those in frontline roles, officials have said, including medical personnel and those working in public places. A second phase is expected to begin in the spring.