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[ANALYSIS] Chinese vaccine confusion

What a mess! Last week, the Brazilian arm of the Sinovac Phase 3 clinical trial reported that this candidate Chinese vaccine had a 78% efficacy rate. Since then, Indonesia approved and began vaccinating its people with the vaccine. However, on Wednesday, the same Brazilian team announced that the efficacy rate for the Sinovac vaccine is only 50%, if you include the mild cases. 

It is now not clear what the true efficacy of this vaccine is, especially since the Brazilian team reported that their current report relies on data that only goes through November 28, 2020, and that they have more data since then that is still being analyzed. Researchers in Turkey reported on December 24, 2020, that they found a 91.5% efficacy with their smaller trial, while Indonesia reported a 65% efficacy with their trial.

What does this all mean for the Philippines? Some politicians are calling for the national government to cancel our order for the Sinovac vaccine. I believe that this would be premature. Though we do not know the exact efficacy of this vaccine, it is still above 50%, which is the cut-off for the WHO for a credible COVID-19 vaccine. Most importantly, the vaccine still appears to give 100% protection against severe COVID-19 that requires hospitalization, though the trial is still ongoing.

Vaccinating millions of Filipinos with the Sinovac vaccine would still end the pandemic despite its lower efficacy. Why is this? Pandemic management is about preventing deaths and protecting the hospital infrastructure of our country. If a vaccine prevents hospitalizations and deaths – like the Sinovac vaccine appears to do – then we would transform COVID-19 into a common cold. Some vaccinated Filipinos would get still COVID-19 but it would not make them very sick. They would cough for a few days. They may even have a fever for a day or so. But they would recover quickly. They would not inundate our hospitals. They would not die. 

The reality is that there is a severe shortage of Western vaccines against COVID-19, and this severe shortage is expected to last through this year. The Chinese vaccines would fill in the gap left by the scarcity of Western vaccines. They will save Filipino lives if they can be deployed sooner than the other vaccines. And as I explained in an earlier post, the Sinovac vaccine has the added advantage that it is easily stored and transported in a regular refrigerator. 

What about price? Some have complained that the Sinovac vaccine is expensive. Published prices puts the Sinovac vaccine at the near top of the list. I too have wondered about the high price of the Chinese vaccine. However, General Galvez, who is our country’s vaccine czar, has explained that the Philippines is purchasing these vaccines at a substantial discount because of government to government negotiations. This is not unusual.

Vaccine prices vary around the world. There are reports from local newspapers that indicate that Israel is paying an average of $47 per person for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In contrast, Western newspapers have reported that the US is paying about $30 per person for the same vaccines. Quoted prices in the Philippines found on social media from the offices of Philippine senators are higher, with a price point of $50-$80+ per person. The differences in these prices are the result of independent negotiations between each national government and the vaccine manufacturer. 

In the end, we need every safe and efficacious vaccine that we can purchase to vaccinate our entire population as soon as possible. And the minimal criterion for a safe and efficacious vaccine should be this: it prevents severe COVID-19 that requires hospitalization. Though not ideal, a vaccine that passes this threshold would still be a vaccine that transforms a killer respiratory disease into a common cold. It would end the pandemic. –

Reverend Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. is Visiting Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Santo Tomas, and an OCTA Research Fellow.