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The New Arab Staff

China's 'vaccine diplomacy' presses ahead in the Middle East despite concerns over clinical trials

China is looking to strengthen in Middle Eastern ties through 'vaccine diplomacy' [Getty/ Archive]

Date of publication: 30 December, 2020

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Health authorities in the Middle East are rolling out vaccines developed by Chinese state-owned conglomerate Sinopharm.
China's distribution of two coronavirus vaccines, developed by state-owned conglomerate Sinopharm, is steadily gaining momentum in the Middle East, despite concerns about a lack of transparency in the late-stage trials of the jab.

Gulf states Bahrain and the UAE granted emergency approval for the Chinese vaccine for frontline workers, before clinical trials had concluded. Earlier this month, Morocco began a drive to vaccinate 70 percent of its population after a 600-person trial of Sinopharm's vaccines.

In Egypt, authorities reportedly invited doctors to be immunised with the Sinopharm vaccine without disclosing that the rollout was part of a clinical trial. An anonymous Egyptian doctor who spoke to The Guardian said authorities had insisted that the vaccine had no side effects, amid significant skepticism from some health professionals.

"When my colleagues and I got that message, none of us participated, as we cannot trust it," the health worker, who works at a state hospital, said. 

Egypt's trials of the vaccine took place in September, however, only it managed to recruit 3,000 volunteers after a target of 6,000.

Cairo now says it will begin vaccinating health workers, with an aim of providing 10 million doses throughout the country. The Sinopharm vaccine will be the primary vaccine used in the latest rollout.

"It's now a trade-off between the risk of the virus, especially with the current surge in cases, and the risk of an untrusted vaccine with not enough supporting data at all," the doctor told The Guardian.

Egypt has previously expressed its aim of becoming a production centre for Sinopharm's vaccines for the Africa region. A manafacturing plant is also due to be built in Morocco next year.

In contrast to the Pfizer-BioNTech's "mRNA" vaccine, which  contains a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognise the spiked protein on the surface of the virus, Sinopharm's vaccines contain an inactivated coronavirus. Inactivated vaccines have long been used to vaccinate against the flu, chickenpox and other illnesses.

Familiarity with inactivated vaccines among medical professionals has added to the appeal of the Sinopharm vaccines, alongside its relative ease of storage. Sinopharm’s vaccines are kept at the standard 2C-8C (35.6F to 46.4F), while the newer mRNA vaccines require a cold storage chain.

Sinopharm chair Liu Jingzhen said in a recent statement that the conglomerate had "not received any reports of serious adverse reaction, and only a few have some mild symptoms", after 1 million people received doses under emergency authorisation.

A separate study published by the Lancet suggested a 19 percent incidence of adverse reactions after two doses, citing Sinopharm's stage-2 trials.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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