On May 3, 2021, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took the first dose of Chinese-made Sinopharm Vaccine while streaming himself live. It was expected to create a buzz of excitement in the minds of fellow Philippinos who would come forward to take the vaccines to protect themselves against Covid-19. Instead, it created one of the greatest backlashes in Duterte’s tenure as a President.
The primary cause of the backlash was the vaccine itself. Sinopharm Vaccine has not been approved by the country’s regulators and taking such a big risk without the complete approval of National Medical Associations and WHO was simply a suicide mission. Due to this stiff counterblast, Duterte has asked China to take back 1,000 doses of Sinopharm Vaccines it had donated to the Philippines. He also apologized to the public for taking an unapproved shot and causing a nationwide commotion. On a whimsical turn of events, this was the second act of diplomacy between the Philippines and its vast neighbor within the span of a week. The last incident being, Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin’s apology for an expletive-tweet about Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.
This incident is a prime example showing regulatory roadblocks faced by the Chinese vaccines in the absence of approval from a stringent and world-renowned regulatory authority like WHO. If we think from a clear perspective, Sinopharm could be the best Covid vaccine developed till now. But it will be of no use to millions of Philippinos if it isn’t approved by WHO.
Thanks to this incident, WHO is finally in talks to finalize their decisions about both the submitted Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, by the end of the week. This approval from WHO might just be the boost that Chinese vaccines require to prove their superiority and effectiveness. In the past, the relations between WHO and Chinese medical and research associations have been a bit sour as Chinese vaccines have long faced concerns about efficacy rates and a lack of transparency regarding clinical trial data.
According to Sinovac and Sinopharm, they both received efficacy results in different countries but they exceeded WHO’s 50% efficacy benchmark for emergency use. Vaccines generally contain a mild dose of a virus or germs so that they can promote the formation of natural antibodies in the human immune system. But when you exceed the efficacy level the vaccines may cause immune dysfunctions or other permanent ailments. Thus, WHO is extremely strict in terms of vaccine approval.
If Sinovac and Sinopharm get approved, it will no doubt boost Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. But, most importantly it would help to reduce the pressure on WHO who are now falling short of COVAX to supply to various Asian nations.