When will China roll out a COVID-19 vaccine? Which countries will get it?

Science & Health

Four vaccines developed by Chinese companies have moved on to Phase 3 trials, accounting for half of the global candidates at that final stage of human testing before approval.

vaccine testing in china
Early testing in April of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate by Sinopharm in Beijing. Photo via Xinhua.

In May this year, as China appeared to have largely contained the coronavirus outbreak within its borders, Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 addressed the World Health Assembly and said:

COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment in China, when available, will be made a global public good.

When might a Chinese vaccine be available?
Several Chinese companies are racing to complete a vaccine and get it approved before the end of the year. Because China now has so few COVID-19 cases, Phase 3 trials (the final and largest phase of human testing before approval for public use) are being conducted overseas. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker:

  • CanSino Biologics, partnered with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, has Phase 3 trials for its vaccine planned in Saudi Arabia. After Phase 2 results were promising, the Chinese military took the “unprecedented” move of approving this vaccine for limited internal use.
  • Sinovac Biotech has completed combined Phase 1 and 2 trials for its vaccine, and “launched a Phase 3 trial in Brazil in July and another in Indonesia the following month.”
  • Sinopharm is conducting Phase 3 trials in the United Arab Emirates for two different vaccines, one developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, and another developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products.
  • These four vaccine candidates account for half of the global candidates in Phase 3 trials.

Sinopharm may have a vaccine ready “by the end of this year,” the state-owned company’s chairman, Liú Jìngzhēn 刘敬桢, said in July. Liu has more recently even speculated on the price (in Chinese) of the vaccine, saying that two shots “should be less than 1,000 yuan” ($144) before insurance.

Which countries will get China’s vaccine first?

The U.S. is on about the same timeline as China, judging by the comments of leading infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, who is “cautiously optimistic that [the U.S.] will have a vaccine by the end of this year.” But the U.S. is not planning to immediately share its vaccine, according to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

China, on the other hand, appears poised to supply vaccines for multiple countries, and given its relatively low urgency to vaccinate its entire population, it has more flexibility to do so.

But will it be a “global public good,” as Xi promised?
Perhaps not exactly, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), which reports that early access is likely to be focused on “countries of strategic interest” to Beijing:

China’s Foreign Ministry has promised the Philippines priority access to a Chinese vaccine, while privately-owned Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech Ltd. has agreed to work with Brazil and Indonesia to produce hundreds of millions of doses of its vaccine candidate for local use.

Pakistan, one of China’s closest allies in the developing world, would receive doses to distribute to roughly one-fifth of its population of 220 million, under a deal that allows China National Pharmaceutical Group, also known as Sinopharm, to conduct clinical trials there.

And Russia may produce a vaccine developed by China’s military and China-based CanSino Biologics Inc., if the Russian health ministry approves.

What to expect

If China ensures there are no quality issues with its vaccines — like those that plagued medical exports to Europe and Africa earlier this year — and also avoids aggressively demanding praise in exchange for receiving medical assistance, the vaccine rollout could be very beneficial for China’s global image.