China’s health authorities have approved a Covid vaccine from state-owned Sinopharm for general use on the population, the government has announced.
At a press conference in Beijing a state taskforce announced the vaccine had exceeded World Health Organization standards and would help establish effective immunity in China.
Health officials said vulnerable groups would be prioritised ahead of the general population. Key groups have already been receiving vaccines under emergency approvals, including about a million receiving the Sinopharm vaccine.
Zeng Yixin, deputy head of the national health commission, said it was aiming for 60-70% vaccination coverage, which was expected to establish herd immunity. “As the Chinese vaccine is proved to be safe and effective, we would like to encourage our people to participate on a voluntary and informed basis, and with consent,” he said.
The officials did not give specific dates but said the rollout would begin “soon” at a “significantly reduced” cost.
Zheng Zhongwei, head of the vaccine research and development working group, said the vaccine was a public good and the cost of production was “the only basis for pricing”.
Zeng then added that the vaccine “must be provided free of charge for all people”, and state media subsequently reported that the vaccine will be free.
Sinopharm is a state-owned pharmaceutical company with two vaccine candidates among China’s five experimental treatments in international final stage trials. Public statements about Sinopharm vaccines do not appear to clarify which of the two candidates is being discussed.
The approval followed an announcement on Wednesday by Sinopharm that phase 3 trials had found its vaccine to be 79% effective. This followed trials conducted in the UAE reporting 86% efficacy earlier in December. The vaccines have not been trialled in China because the virus is not prevalent enough, authorities say.
Chinese vaccine developers have not released trial data. On Thursday a health official said the Sinopharm data would be published “later” in Chinese and foreign medical journals.
At an annual meeting of health workers on 22 December, Zhang Wenhong, head of infectious diseases at Fundan University’s Huasha hospital, said there was apprehension among Chinese people about the domestically produced vaccine, and party leaders should be vaccinated first to reassure the public. A recording of his comments spread quickly on Chinese social media before it was censored.
Sinopharm and rival developer Sinovac have created their vaccines via the more traditional method of using an inactive virus to trigger an immune response. They are more difficult to manufacture quickly than other types and have the potential to cause an imbalanced immune response, but have shown historic success.
Mao Junfeng, head of consumer products at China’s industry ministry, said vaccine producers had ramped up production capacity. “We believe China’s vaccine production will meet the demand for large scale vaccination, and looking ahead the ministry will follow the plans [of the central government] … and help enterprises expand production capacity and make sure a smooth production and supply chain will provide effective and accessible vaccines for the people.”
In September the UAE was the first country outside China to approve emergency use of a Sinopharm vaccine. It has since been made available in Bahrain and shipped to Egypt, while Morocco is planning to rely on it to vaccinate 80% of its adult population. Other countries have signed on to receive the Sinovac vaccine, China’s other domestically produced frontrunner. In October China announced it was joining Covax, the international initiative aimed at ensuring equitable global access to vaccines.