China became World’s Largest Vaccine Exporter Against COVID-19

Since China approved its first two Covid-19 vaccines for emergency use slightly over a year ago, it has quickly scaled up its production to become the world’s largest exporter of vaccine doses against the disease.

China became World’s Largest Vaccine Exporter Against COVID-19
  • With just 1 per cent of people vaccinated in low-income countries, demand for Chinese jabs looks set to continue
  • But more data and better transparency will improve the reputation of the doses, including those still in development

In addition to fully vaccinating more than 1 billion of its people, China has exported over a billion vaccine doses – and estimates that its total exports of vaccines could reach 2 billion doses this year.

But the country’s rise to become a major player in the Covid-19 vaccine market is not without controversy – mainly because of a perceived lack of transparency and the way data from the late-stage trials was released.

The use of traditional technology to make whole inactivated virus vaccines (WIV) gave China an edge in terms of design speed. The jabs have been instrumental in reducing death and serious cases but they are less effective than those using advanced platforms such as the mRNA and protein subunit vaccines.

As more choices have become available in recent months, some developing countries have turned to other suppliers over concerns about the effectiveness of the Chinese jabs against the Delta variants.

Experts said China’s role as the top vaccine provider to developing countries would remain unchanged in the foreseeable future but its endeavour to become a major vaccines player using more advanced technologies such as the mRNA platform would depend on how it tests new candidates and verifies the data.

Demand and supply

China’s vaccines were much sought after in the first half of this year, as Western countries focused on their domestic needs in what the World Health Organization (WHO) slammed as vaccine nationalism.

But in recent months, some major buyers of China’s inactivated vaccines – among them Sinopharm customers the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – have begun using alternatives as boosters, concerned over the effectiveness of the Chinese jabs against the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Thailand is mixing Sinovac doses with AstraZeneca jabs. South Africa has reportedly turned down 2.5 million Sinovac doses distributed by the Covax Facility, while Nigeria has deemed its 8 million Sinopharm doses, also from the UN-backed equitable access programme, only as “potential” jabs.

However, while the world’s supply gap remains, China’s inactivated vaccines will continue to be the major source of Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries, experts said.

China has exported more than a billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines this year, including donations to low-income countries. Photo: Xinhua

Since China approved its first two Covid-19 vaccines for emergency use slightly over a year ago, it has quickly scaled up its production to become the world’s largest exporter of vaccine doses against the disease.

In addition to fully vaccinating more than 1 billion of its people, China has exported over a billion vaccine doses – and estimates that its total exports of vaccines could reach 2 billion doses this year.

But the country’s rise to become a major player in the Covid-19 vaccine market is not without controversy – mainly because of a perceived lack of transparency and the way data from the late-stage trials was released.

The use of traditional technology to make whole inactivated virus vaccines (WIV) gave China an edge in terms of design speed. The jabs have been instrumental in reducing death and serious cases but they are less effective than those using advanced platforms such as the mRNA and protein subunit vaccines.

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As more choices have become available in recent months, some developing countries have turned to other suppliers over concerns about the effectiveness of the Chinese jabs against the Delta variants.

Experts said China’s role as the top vaccine provider to developing countries would remain unchanged in the foreseeable future but its endeavour to become a major vaccines player using more advanced technologies such as the mRNA platform would depend on how it tests new candidates and verifies the data.

Demand and supply

China’s vaccines were much sought after in the first half of this year, as Western countries focused on their domestic needs in what the World Health Organization (WHO) slammed as vaccine nationalism.

But in recent months, some major buyers of China’s inactivated vaccines – among them Sinopharm customers the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – have begun using alternatives as boosters, concerned over the effectiveness of the Chinese jabs against the highly transmissible Delta variant.EVERY SATURDAYSCMP Global Impact NewsletterBy submitting, you consent to receiving marketing emails from SCMP. If you don’t want these, tick hereBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

Thailand is mixing Sinovac doses with AstraZeneca jabs. South Africa has reportedly turned down 2.5 million Sinovac doses distributed by the Covax Facility, while Nigeria has deemed its 8 million Sinopharm doses, also from the UN-backed equitable access programme, only as “potential” jabs.

However, while the world’s supply gap remains, China’s inactivated vaccines will continue to be the major source of Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries, experts said.

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“Given the current supply shortfall, the billions of doses of WIV from Sinopharm, Sinovac and Bharat [Biotech of India], when approved by the WHO, will be very important in the first round of vaccination globally,” said Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute.

“Over the midterm, the next six to nine critical months, where we have 11 billion doses to go, can we do it without inactivated vaccines? Now we need to vaccinate 8 billion – we may very well need every vaccine we can get that is WHO emergency use licensing [approved], particularly ones that can be kept stable at achievable temperatures for extended periods.”

Despite their lagging efficacy rates, China’s inactivated vaccines and the vectored vaccines developed by Oxford University are important to developing countries, many of which lack the infrastructure for mRNA vaccines, which must be stored at minus 20 to minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 4 to minus 94 Fahrenheit).

Huang Yanzhong, director of the Centre for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said Chinese vaccines would continue to be in high demand, especially if the decision by some Western countries to give boosters to their populations strained the availability of mRNA vaccines.

So far, one-third of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated, but that falls to less than 1 per cent of people in low-income countries.

Racing to deliver

China has also been fast in getting its vaccines to other countries.

“In terms of delivery, that might become an issue in Southeast Asia. I notice some countries continue to use the Chinese vaccines in part because the United States is slow in delivering vaccines,” Huang said.

He said a spike of cases caused by the Delta variant had also made countries more eager to take whatever vaccines they could get, including the Chinese vaccines.

China has been putting more emphasis on bilateral sales, especially to its strategic neighbours in Southeast Asian countries, with donations making up a relatively small part of its total vaccine exports. According to Beijing-based Bridge Consulting, China had sold 1.24 billion doses to overseas markets, up to September, compared to 66 million donated vaccines. China has promised to donate 100 million doses to the Covax Facility by the end of the year.

Kate O’Brien, director of the WHO’s department of immunisation, vaccines and biologicals, said last week there had been delays in supplies of the Chinese jabs to Covax, but China was not alone in experiencing problems.

“There have been issues also in China with the delivery of doses out of the country because of air freight and other issues,” she said. Without naming specific countries, O’Brien urged donors to be transparent about their production and shipment timelines, and whether Covax was being prioritised.

“There really isn’t anybody who has a full sight line on that, that there has not been adequate transparency around exactly what’s happening on a monthly basis, where the doses are going, and is Covax actually being prioritised or other contracts,” she said.

Originally Published by South China Morning Post

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