Russia, China rush to fill Covid-19 vaccine void

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DUBAI – As US and Europe await large-scale clinical trial results before deploying Covid-19 vaccines, some other countries are moving much faster with emergency deployment of Chinese and Russian experimental candidates in an attempt to stem the rise in global infections.

Over the past month, the United Arab Emirates offered a Chinese vaccine to thousands of medical workers, teachers, airport staff and government officials in the most ambitious program of its kind outside of the United Arab Emirates. China. Indonesia plans to start similar emergency vaccinations with three types of Chinese Covid-19 vaccines as early as next month, a senior health official said.

Russia on Wednesday approved the emergency use of a second vaccine after giving the green light to its Sputnik V for frontline personnel in August, with President Vladimir Putin saying the country would increase production of both . China has already vaccinated hundreds of thousands of citizens in its country, expanding the distribution of experimental vaccines outside of clinical trials to students, diplomats and others traveling abroad. Some Western health experts have warned that Russia and China are moving too fast, before the side effects and effectiveness of the vaccines can be properly verified. The two countries are trying to use vaccine diplomacy as part of a larger push to increase their global influence at the expense of the United States and its allies, with Beijing in particular backing its successes against the coronavirus as proof that its authoritarian system is superior to the West. democracies.

“There is no guarantee that these vaccines will work and nothing guarantees the safety of those who take them. It is a dangerous bet that could backfire on Russia and China, ”said François Heisbourg, senior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “But the proof is in the pudding: if it works, they will look extremely smart and visionary, and they will claim to have a better role model.”

U.S. and European vaccine developers have pledged not to seek government approval to market their vaccine candidates to the public until sufficient data is obtained on end-stage or phase 3 clinical trials. Two of those trials – one by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca PLC and the other by Johnson & Johnson – were on hiatus in the United States due to unexplained illnesses among participants.

A volunteer receives the Russian vaccine against Sputnik V at a clinic in Moscow.

Photo:
tatyana makeyeva / Reuters

Stuart Neil, professor of virology at King’s College London, said he expects multiple ongoing Phase 3 trials to start generating efficacy data by December or January. “I imagine we’ll see the results of those dribbles,” he said. “We can’t cut corners, and we can’t be seen as sharp.”

No vaccine against the coronavirus is likely to be nearly 100% effective, which is why public confidence in it and the resulting high levels of immunization in the general population would be essential to end the pandemic.

“We need to take vaccine development extremely seriously and with caution,” said Professor Luke O’Neill, immunologist at Trinity College Dublin. “The risk is that if they have a safety issue it threatens vaccinations against any disease.”

Last month, the United Arab Emirates became the first country outside of China to approve emergency use of a vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceuticals Group, or Sinopharm, after the Gulf Monarchy approved it. tested on 31,000 volunteers from 125 nationalities in phase 3 trials. Since then, several thousand workers most at risk of contracting the virus have received the vaccine, and more are getting vaccinated every day, said a UAE official supervising attempts.

The UAE has moved much faster than Russia with the deployment of the vaccine. In Russia, some 2,000 frontline staff have received the Sputnik V vaccine since August, and some 13,000 people have signed up for ongoing Phase 3 trials, just over a third of the number in the United Arab Emirates, said sources close to the project. Russia plans to eventually recruit 40,000 volunteers for the trial.

The UAE’s phase 3 trials began in July in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, two of the country’s seven constituent emirates, and involve two different strains of vaccines developed by Sinopharm. A third of the participants received a placebo and the remaining two-thirds received one of these two strains, said Dr Nawal al Kaabi, principal investigator of the trial at SEHA, the Abu Dhabi health company.

The efficacy of either strain of the vaccine is unclear so far, as the analysis of the randomized, double-blind trial can only be done after a predefined number. of trial participants developed symptomatic Covid-19, allowing a statistically valid comparison between those who received the placebo and those inoculated with a vaccine. Dr Kaabi said only a fifth of that predefined number, which she has not disclosed, has been reached so far.

Similar trials of Chinese vaccines by Sinopharm and other developers are underway in more than a dozen countries, including Indonesia, Russia, Brazil, and Pakistan. Group 42, an Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence company that has partnered with Sinopharm in the United Arab Emirates, is also working with the Chinese company on Phase 3 trials in Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan.

As richer countries buy stocks of Covid-19 vaccines from Western drugmakers who are still developing, China and Russia are offering their accelerated injections to poorer countries. Here’s what they hope to get in return. Illustration: Ksenia Shaikhutdinova

Sinopharm vaccine candidates are based on inactivated viruses, which means that the pathogen is weakened for use in humans. Dr Kaabi said no one has fallen ill with Covid-19 among vaccinated frontline workers in Abu Dhabi since the UAE’s emergency use authorization was granted on September 15.

Ken Dittrich, a 63-year-old Canadian consultant in the emergency department of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, one of the country’s main centers for the treatment of Covid-19, said he had volunteered to hit because people her age are more likely to do it. develop a severe form of the disease. “I’m in a middle age group,” he says. “I am convinced that the benefits outweigh any risks.”

Officials in the United Arab Emirates say the Sinopharm vaccine has so far caused only mild side effects among trial participants, which include 1,000 volunteers with chronic illnesses. In an attempt to boost public confidence, the country’s Minister of Health Abdulrahman al-Owais posted photos of himself having his picture taken.

The Abu Dhabi authority that oversees education sent a message to schools that teachers would give them the option to take the vaccine in the coming weeks as part of the emergency use authorization. Some schools in Sharjah have also offered the vaccine to staff, teachers said. Employees in contact with travelers at Sharjah airport have already started receiving the shots, according to a statement from the airport operator. Government officials, including police and justice officials, as well as other residents of Al Ain town, also received the vaccine, state media said.

Everyone who takes it is a volunteer and no one is required to be vaccinated, Dr Kaabi said. Recipients are advised to get the flu shot first.

Bahrain is one of the countries in the Middle East that is hosting phase 3 trials of Sinopharm vaccine candidates, including at this converted convention center in the capital, Manama.

Photo:
mazen mahdi / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

On Monday, following a phone call between Mr Putin and the UAE’s de facto chief Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi said it would also conduct phase 3 trials of the Sputnik V vaccine.

China, unlike the United Arab Emirates, Russia and much of the rest of the world, has contained the pandemic at home – meaning Chinese pharmaceutical companies need countries where the virus is still spreading to test for it. effectiveness of vaccines.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is struggling to reduce cases and speed up testing. The government said on Wednesday that it plans to procure 18 million doses by the end of the year from Chinese companies Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and CanSino Biologics Inc., in addition to Sinopharm. Achmad Yurianto, director general of disease prevention and control at Indonesia’s health ministry, said emergency use authorization would only be granted if officials felt confident the vaccines were safe.

The UAE is a particularly attractive testing ground for vaccine developers because its population of 10 million is made up of many ethnicities and races. The country, which runs one of the world’s most intensive coronavirus testing programs, has recorded 110,000 Covid-19 infections so far, with numbers rising in recent weeks and reaching a record high on Wednesday.

About 85% of those cases are asymptomatic, officials say, and the country’s relatively young population and aggressive public health measures have resulted in one of the world’s lowest coronavirus death rates, at 0.4% .

The rapid deployment of the Sinopharm vaccine in the UAE is raising skeptics. Some expats have privately expressed concerns about taking a vaccine that had been tested for such a short time.

In Bahrain, where Sinopharm’s Phase 3 trials are underway, Saqer Al-Khalifa, deputy undersecretary of youth centers and commissions at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, said he too faces skepticism about Chinese vaccine.

Yet, he added, the trial offered an opportunity to serve the rest of humanity by helping end the pandemic. “This is where you can be proud of yourself,” he said, “whether you make it out alive or not.”

Write to Rory Jones at [email protected] and Yaroslav Trofimov at [email protected]

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