China's Sinopharm says it can produce 1b Covid-19 vaccine doses by 2021

Sinopharm Group chairman Liu Jingzhen said at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday that the vaccines now under testing will be safe.
Sinopharm Group chairman Liu Jingzhen said at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday that the vaccines now under testing will be safe.PHOTO: REUTERS

State-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm Group is setting up production lines to supply one billion doses of two Covid-19 vaccines currently in the final stages of testing, according to media reports.

Its chairman Liu Jingzhen said at a news conference on Tuesday that the vaccines will be safe, but gave no indication of when testing results are expected.

He added that Sinopharm is "in the last kilometre of a long march" and production capacity will reach one billion doses next year.

Production lines are being set up in Beijing and Wuhan, the city in central China where Covid-19 first emerged.

So far, about 60,000 volunteers have been inoculated with four Chinese vaccines in Phase III trials, according to a China Daily report yesterday which cited a Chinese government official.

No severe adverse reaction has been reported among the volunteers, the official said, adding that preliminary results show that the vaccines are generally safe and have minor side effects such as pain and bruising at the injection site, as well as temporary low-grade fever.

But Western news outlets have questioned China's haste to inoculate citizens with vaccines still in late-stage testing, citing experts who are worried about issues of consent among volunteers who are taking the vaccines, as well as potential harmful side effects.

According to a Sept 26 New York Times report, China has so far dosed employees at state-owned companies and government officials, among other workers it considers essential.

"China's rush has bewildered experts," the report said. "No other country has injected people with unproven vaccines outside the drug trial process to such a huge scale."

But Mr Zheng Zhongwei, a director at China's National Health Commission, said on Tuesday that the roll-out is justified, given the risk of Covid-19 returning through its borders and the lack of significant side effects so far from the shots given to volunteers.

Mr Zheng, who is overseeing Covid-19 vaccine development, added that China is still facing pressure from imported cases.

China's emergency-use parameters were approved after rigorous deliberation among vaccine and ethics experts, and with the backing of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said Mr Zheng.

At a WHO meeting in May, President Xi Jinping said Covid-19 vaccines produced by China will be a global public good. He pledged US$2 billion (S$2.71 billion) over the next two years to tackle the virus.

Media reports suggest China is in a hurry to win the global race to develop a vaccine, to dispel criticism that it had mishandled the pandemic in its initial stages and boost its image.

On Oct 8, China signed on to Covax, the WHO-backed initiative for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, joining 170 other nations.

China said it had been assisting Chinese vaccine research and development companies participating in Covax, to provide vaccines for developing countries.

"This will be China's contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2020, with the headline 'China's Sinopharm says it can produce 1b doses by 2021'. Subscribe