Caixin
Jun 04, 2021 08:06 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Sinopharm’s Conventional Vaccine Tech Is No Slouch, Executive Says

Yang Xiaoming, chairman of China Biotechnology Technology. Photo: VCG
Yang Xiaoming, chairman of China Biotechnology Technology. Photo: VCG

An executive under China’s Sinopharm has rebutted criticism that inactivated Covid-19 vaccines — like the one it is rolling out around the world — are technologically backward, noting that breakthroughs have allowed such vaccines to be made much faster and more effectively.

“Inactivated vaccine (technology) is traditional, but being traditional does not mean it is backward,” said Yang Xiaoming, chairman of China Biotechnology Technology Co. Ltd., a major coronavirus vaccine-maker and subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd.

Inactivated vaccines are a “first generation” vaccine technology that is older than the cutting-edge mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna Inc. and Pfizer-BioNTech — and in the case of Covid-19, they have yielded generally lower efficacy rates.

Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved one inactivated vaccine developed by Sinopharm’s Beijing unit for “emergency use.” It’s a vote of confidence in the jab that also means it can be used in the Covax program, which is intended to ensure vaccine supply to poorer nations.

A study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that the vaccine prevented symptomatic Covid-19 infections by 78.1%.

The technology used to make these vaccines, which contain a killed form of the coronavirus that spurs the body to produces antibodies to fight off Covid-19, has been improved to ensure that virus can rendered inactive without reducing the effectiveness of the vaccine, Yang said Thursday at a health conference held by the Boao Forum for Asia in the eastern city of Qingdao.

Advancements in this technology have allowed large-scale production of inactivated vaccines, Yang said. “It was not easy to produce 20 million to 30 million doses with previous technologies, but we can now produce 1 billion doses at a time,” he said.

Yang estimated that Sinopharm will be able to produce more than 3 billion doses of its inactivated vaccines a year, enough for China to export while meeting domestic demand.

Sinopharm’s Wuhan unit has also developed an inactivated Covid-19 vaccine, which the JAMA study showed prevented symptomatic infections in 72.8% of patients. This vaccine has begun being used in China, but has yet to receive WHO approval.

On Tuesday, the WHO authorized an inactivated vaccine produced by Sinovac Biotech Ltd., another major Chinese vaccine-maker, for global emergency use, making it the seventh WHO-recognized coronavirus vaccine.

Yang said Covid-19 vaccines still face challenges, such as producing enough of a supply to inoculate everyone on the planet, as well as questions, such as how long vaccinated people will remain immune to the virus and how safe the vaccines are in the long-term. “With so many vaccine doses (being administered), we can’t afford for a single one of them to have problems.”

Coronavirus mutations also pose a threat. Studies show that the two Sinopharm-backed vaccines can effectively protect people against four SARS-CoV-2 variants, but the degree of protection varies, he said.

For example, the Sinopharm vaccine was only 70% as effective against the South African variant of the coronavirus as it was against original strain of the virus, he said.

Contact reporter Guo Yingzhe (yingzheguo@caixin.com) and editor Michael Bellart (michaelbellart@caixin.com)

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