China just approved its first COVID-19 vaccine as it races to inoculate the world's biggest population

  • China has approved its first vaccine for domestic use.
  • Conditional approval has been granted to a vaccine developed by state-controlled Sinopharm, which claims 79% efficacy, but has not published key details.
  • China wants to vaccinate 50 million people by mid-February, the New York Times reported.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

China has granted conditional approval to its first vaccine for general domestic use against COVID-19, though its rollout may be marred by questions over its efficacy and lack of data.

The shot has been developed by state-controlled pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm, which claimed 79% efficacy for the vaccine on Wednesday. That is lower than Western vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which boast efficacy rates of 95% and 94% respectively.

According to Reuters, the 79% figure seems to be inconsistent. The same vaccine has been approved by Bahrain and the UAE, which claimed an 86% efficacy rate. Per the Financial Times, there has been no public explanation for the discrepancy, and neither Sinopharm, nor Bahrain or the UAE's regulators, have released details of their analysis.

Dong-Yan Jin, professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, told Reuters: "We still have not seen key details, such as the number of trial participants and infections in Phase 3 trials for the vaccine."

He added China's regulators would have access to key information, and continued: "But if the vaccine wants to take a share in the global market, especially in developed countries, more data is necessary."

"If the vaccine could win approval in the United States, or European Union, where the regulatory bars are higher than in China and in UAE, more people would trust it."

China was the epicenter of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic at the start of the year. Tough lockdowns and other restrictions have kept the official death rate to just 4,781 and infections below 96,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. This compared with a death toll of nearly 1.81 million. 

On December 31 last year, Chinese officials told the World Health Organization they were investigating 27 cases of viral pneumonia.

Announcing the conditional approval on Thursday, Chen Shifei, deputy commissioner of China's National Medical Products Administration, said: "The known benefits of Sinopharm's new inactivated coronavirus vaccine are bigger than the known and potential risks."

China has already vaccinated more than 1 million workers with jabs approved for emergency use, and faces a major challenge in inoculating the bulk of its 1.3 billion population. According to the New York Times, China wants to vaccinate 50 million people by February, when millions are expected to travel to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

China will focus its first round of inoculations on those in frontline roles, officials have previously said, including medical personnel and those working in public places. A second phase will begin in the spring.

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