China's Sinovac, Sinopharm ink COVAX supply deal for up to 550M coronavirus vaccine doses

COVAX, the global COVID-19 vaccine sharing program, has fallen behind in its pursuit to provide poorer nations with billions of doses by year’s end. But now, the program is getting a much-needed boost from Chinese vaccine developers Sinovac and Sinopharm.

In a boon to poorer countries with lagging vaccine rollouts, Gavi, the vaccine alliance, inked supply agreements with the two drugmakers worth up to 550 million doses. Since the shots have already scored the WHO’s emergency use backing, they’ll be able to ship out immediately, Gavi said.

Sinovac has agreed to supply up to 380 million doses while Sinopharm has proffered up to 170 million. The pair will ship 110 million shots immediately through COVAX, which Gavi co-leads alongside the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

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Some countries, however, have recently grown concerned about the effectiveness of the two jabs, especially amid the rapid rise of virus variants. In Thailand, over 600 medical workers inoculated with Sinovac’s shot, dubbed CoronaVac, were later infected with COVID-19, Reuters reports, citing government data from April to July. 

Following those infections, Thailand became the first country on Monday to say it will use AstraZeneca’s vaccine as a second dose for those who received a first jab of Sinovac’s shot, according to the news agency. A spokesperson for the company wasn’t immediately available to comment. 

The move, the first to mix-and-match a Western-developed jab with a Chinese shot, is intended to boost immunity against the troublesome delta variant, first found in India, officials said. Among some of the most vaccinated countries currently experiencing outbreaks, most have relied on vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm, according to a new CNBC analysis.

Gavi told Fierce Pharma that it follows the WHO's endorsements in regard to vaccine effectiveness and safety. All WHO-backed shots, including Sinovac and Sinopharm, have proven to be highly effective against severe disease, hospitalization and death, a spokesperson said. 

"This is even more urgent as the world confronts the rising threat of variants," Gavi said. 

The group’s latest deal, which didn’t disclose a price or which countries would receive doses first, comes as global health officials repeatedly chastise rich nations for vaccinating their entire populations before at-risk groups in other countries.

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The COVAX vaccination scheme has been hobbled by rich nations snapping up supplies and delays stemming from India, which is the facility’s largest provider. Those roadblocks recently pushed COVAX to bump back its goal of vaccinating 2 billion people by the end of 2021 to the first half of next year. So far, the program has shipped out just 102 million doses. 

But COVAX is confident it can hit its newest goal thanks to recent donations from richer nations, as well as deals with manufacturers, Gavi said. The program’s portfolio of vaccines now totals 11, including those from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca. Last month, G7 countries pledged 870 million shots for COVAX distribution.