Covid-19: UAE's Sinopharm bet pays off as WHO approves vaccine

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In July 2020, the UAE government launched the world’s first phase III clinical trial of a Covid-19 inactivated vaccine.


Anjana Sankar

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Published: Sun 9 May 2021, 11:34 PM

Last updated: Mon 10 May 2021, 8:32 AM

The World Health Organization’s approval of China’s Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use will give a big boost to the world’s vaccination race.

The WHO’s stamp of approval — the first given to a Chinese vaccine — is a sign for regulators that the vaccine is safe and effective, and a big relief as nations around the world battle the pandemic.

But long before the WHO’s approval, the UAE had placed its bet on Sinopharm as early as September 2020 when it approved the vaccine for emergency use for its frontline workers.

In July 2020, the UAE government launched the world’s first phase III clinical trial of a Covid-19 inactivated vaccine. The aim was to vaccinate as many people as early as possible as the country’s authorities realised early on that vaccination was the only way to beat the pandemic.

A clinical cooperation agreement was signed between the Chinese pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm China National Biotec Group (CNBG) and Group 42 (G42), the Abu Dhabi-based leading artificial intelligence and cloud computing company.

More than 31,000 volunteers from more than 120 nationalities took the jab in just six weeks in the clinical trial operations in the UAE under the supervision of the Department of Health of Abu Dhabi.

“Now more than ever, nations need to work in close partnership between the government and private sectors to ...confront the threat of Covid-19 and defeat this global pandemic,” said Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention.

It was a multifaceted approach of the UAE to combat the virus that made it launch the trial of Sinopharm before all others. It has paid off.

The clinical trial marked the start of a series of initiatives such as enhancing the UAE’s medical R&D capabilities, including local capacity to manufacture the vaccine.

The confidence about Sinopharm was cemented when the country’s leaders took the vaccine.

“Corona vaccination is our way to return to normal life,” Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, tweeted after receiving the first dose in October.

In November, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, received a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. “We ask God to protect everyone and heal everyone,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted, with a picture of him receiving the vaccine.

The UAE was able to gradually open up its economy as a mass vaccination campaign was rolled out to immunise its population. By January, 2021, the country had already vaccinated one million people. With an aim to vaccinate half of its population, the country rolled out a nationwide inoculation programme prioritising the elderly, Emiratis and people with chronic conditions.

Gradually, it scaled up its vaccination programme by establishing more than 100 vaccine centres across the emirates.

It was no surprise that UAE became the second-most vaccinated country in no time.

As at February, the UAE had administered 48 doses per 100 people — second only to Israel (71 per 100).

“The national campaign for the COVID-19 vaccination is one of the most-important initiatives that the UAE has achieved,” said Dr Saif Al Dhaheri, spokesperson of the country’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority, during a COVID-19 briefing last month.

The UAE also diversified its vaccine availability by approving Pfizer-BioNTech and Russian Sputnik vaccines along with Sinopharm.

Vaccine efficacy

In December 2020, the Sinopharm vaccine was officially registered by the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP). The UAE’s National Emergency, Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) reported that the Chinese vaccine showed 100 per cent protection against moderate and severe Covid-19 infections. Mohap, in collaboration with the Department of Health Abu Dhabi (DOH), has reviewed Sinopharm CNBG’s interim analysis of the phase III trials, which shows Beijing Institute of Biological Product’s inactivated vaccine had 86 per cent efficacy against Covid-19.

The analysis also shows the vaccine to have 99 per cent seroconversion rate of neutralising antibody and 100 per cent effectiveness in preventing moderate and severe cases of the disease, with no serious safety concerns.

The UAE said it is conducting Post Authorisation Safety Study (PASS) and Post Authorisation Efficacy Study (PAES) of its EUA programme. These studies show similar safety and efficacy profiles as the interim analysis.

Experts lauded the UAE’s decision and gave their vote of confidence, saying the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine can offer immunity for nine months.

Hayat — Made in UAE

In April, the UAE announced that it will start manufacturing the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine with a full production schedule underway.

Hayat — meaning ‘life’ in Arabic — is the first indigenous Covid-19 vaccine in the region to be manufactured by a newly created joint venture between Abu Dhabi’s G42 and Sinopharm.

A purpose-built research and development hub for life sciences, biotechnology and vaccine production — the first-of-its-kind in the Arab world — is being set up in Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (Kizad).

The new vaccine plant will have a production capacity of 200 million doses per annum across three filling lines and five automated packaging lines.

The ‘Made in UAE’ Hayat-Vax Covid-19 vaccine is expected to bolster the global vaccination drive and help bring back normalcy to life worldwide.

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