DALIAN, China – Major Chinese drugmakers are rushing to expand their COVID-19 vaccine production capacity to aid inoculation campaigns around the world, but growing doubts about how their injections will work could cloud the global demand across the board.
Pounding noises reverberated through a construction site in Beijing one day in June as workers put up walls for a new vaccine factory affiliated with Sinopharm. “Construction is continuing around the clock so that the plant can be brought online on July 1,” a security guard said.
Sinopharm calls the factory its “birthday present” to the Chinese Communist Party, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary on Thursday. The company is on track to quintuple its total March production capacity to 5 billion doses per year, including work to expand the plant in Beijing.
Sinopharm is not the only Chinese actor to develop its production either. Sinovac Biotech launched a third plant in Beijing in April, doubling its annual capacity to 2 billion doses. CanSino Biologics began operating a joint venture plant in Shanghai in June.
The measures come as China steps up its vaccine diplomacy, mainly among participants in its Belt and Road infrastructure building initiative. It has provided snapshots to around 80 countries so far in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
However, confidence in Chinese vaccines has been shaken around the world.
JPMorgan Asset Management recently reported that nine countries, including the US and UK, have seen new cases plunge after giving Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines to at least 40% of the population.
But among eight countries using the Sinopharm vaccine, new cases have only declined in Hungary. Others – like Bahrain, the Maldives and the Seychelles – have seen no improvement.
Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have both administered Sinopharm vaccines to their populations, have started offering the Pfizer vaccine as a booster after suffering new waves of infections. Chile continues to experience widespread infections despite the importation and administration of a large number of Sinovac vaccines.
The Sinopharm vaccine is 78% effective for people aged 18 to 59, but its effectiveness in older people is unknown, according to the World Health Organization. Sinovac’s shooting ranged from 50% to 84%, depending on the country. Meanwhile, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shown to be over 90% effective.
Whether based on WHO data or company data, “Sinovac and Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine protection efficiencies are lower than those of Pfizer and Moderna,” said Lu Shan, a faculty professor. of Medicine from the University of Massachusetts. “It’s due to the technological difference.”
The main Chinese vaccines use inactivated viruses, similar to the influenza vaccine and other conventional vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna injections use messenger RNA technology, delivering the genetic code of part of the coronavirus to recipient cells. MRNA and other nucleic acid vaccines “may induce better antibody responses,” Lu said.
Sinopharm executive Yang Xiaoming told Chinese media that the company’s decision to go the inactivated route allowed it to develop a vaccine so quickly because it already had years of experience in the technology. Grants and other government support also shortened the delay.
But not everyone approves of this approach. “The new coronavirus reproduces more slowly inside the human body than the influenza virus, so some say that inactivated vaccines are not suitable,” said Kazuhiko Fuji, a researcher at the Japan Research Institute economy, commerce and industry.
“The American and European drug makers probably decided not to choose this option because it would not have been as effective,” he said.
Chinese pharmaceutical companies continue to catch up with American and European players who have long dominated the market. For example, over 90% of Sinopharm’s roughly 590 billion yuan ($ 91 billion) in annual revenue comes from its wholesale and pharmacy business in China, with its drug manufacturing business providing only a few. percent. It also lags behind in advanced technology and appears to have been ineffective in rushing a vaccine.
Some Chinese players are working on mRNA vaccines, such as Yunnan Walvax Biotechnology in partnership with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences. But the shot is still in clinical trials, and its effectiveness and release date have yet to be determined.
China is expected to lead the world in COVID-19 vaccine production this year with around 6.5 billion doses, significantly surpassing the 4.5 billion expected in the second-largest United States. But without confidence in Chinese products, overseas demand will decline and allow the risky capacity to be lost.