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A Chinese COVID-19 vaccine appears to have crossed the finish line—at least in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
On Wednesday, the UAE said a vaccine candidate from Chinese state-owned Sinopharm was 86% effective in protecting against COVID-19 infections based on data analysis from 31,000 volunteers, according to the UAE’s state-owned media outlet The National. The UAE has now officially registered the vaccine for public use, according to the report, and will begin widespread distribution to its population this week.
Eighty-six percent efficacy is just behind the rates reported by frontrunners Pfizer and Moderna, who say their jabs stop 94% and 95% of COVID-19 infections, respectively.
The UAE’s approval of Sinopharm’s vaccine will “lead the way to comprehensively protecting the population and responsibly opening the economy,” the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention told The National on Wednesday. The successful trials mark a “major step towards combating the global pandemic,” the health ministry said.
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Sinopharm had tested two different vaccine candidates in the UAE that were both based on deploying inactivated forms of the virus to fight infections. In the announcement, the UAE indicated it has opted for one of the two candidates—a vaccine originally developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, rather than the one made by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.
Sinopharm did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.
Neither the UAE nor Sinopharm have yet to publish the phase III trial data, and it is unclear if, or when, other countries would approve Sinopharm’s candidate based on data from UAE trials. Sinopharm has filed an application to distribute its vaccines in China, but the government has yet to respond to the request.
While Sinopharm awaits approval to distribute its vaccines to the general population, the Chinese government has been deploying Sinopharm’s vaccine to high-risk groups since July as part of the country’s controversial emergency use program. Scientists have cautioned against deploying vaccines before the conclusion of phase III trials, but Sinopharm recently said over 1 million people in China had been injected with its vaccines outside of trials.
The UAE’s approval and rapid deployment of Sinopharm’s vaccine may reflect how quickly it’s adopted China’s standards in the COVID-19 vaccine development process. In September, the UAE authorized its own emergency use program and distributed Sinopharm’s vaccines to high-risk groups before the conclusion of phase III trials.
While experts have raised questions over Sinopharm distributing unproven vaccines, the company has distinct advantages over rivals in rolling out its vaccine. First, its inactivated virus technology means that its vaccine will likely be more accessible to lower- and middle-income countries. Sinopharm’s vaccines can be stored and shipped at normal refrigeration temperatures (2 to 8 degrees Celsius), whereas vaccine candidates from U.S. vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna require expensive sub-zero cold-chain networks for distribution.
Second, the company says it will have the capacity to produce 1 billion doses of its candidate in 2021 and has established a large cohort of international partners via clinical trials. The company is testing its candidates in Bahrain, Morocco, and Peru, and claimed in September that it had made agreements for clinical trials in at least seven other countries.
“[Sinopharm’s] large scale rollout [via China’s emergency use program] also means that there is already a large distribution system, which has already been stress-tested,” Nicholas Thomas, a vaccine expert and health governance professor at the City University of Hong Kong, told Fortune this week. “This is a major advantage in the future distribution.”
More health care and Big Pharma coverage from Fortune:
- A depleted workforce and no end in sight: An inside look at America’s ailing health care industry
- Getting to the COVID-19 finish line: A drama in three acts
- The science behind the leading COVID vaccines will lead to faster manufacturing
- How China’s COVID-19 vaccines could fill the gaps left by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca
- Who gets first dibs on a COVID-19 vaccine? The U.K.’s historic rollout reveals who gets precedence