A child receives a Sinovac vaccine in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, on Jan. 9. (Abdul Qodir/AFP/Getty Images)
The spread of the omicron variant has hit the world of coronavirus vaccine diplomacy hard. And the impact will be felt most keenly in Beijing and Moscow, as Chinese and Russian vaccines struggle with data showing they are less effective against the fast-spreading variant, dimming hopes for wider global uptake of their product.
The two most widely available Chinese coronavirus vaccines use technology that uses an inactivated version of the virus to produce an immune response — an older though more established technology than the messenger RNA platform used by vaccines widely available in the United States and Europe.
However, some studies now suggest that two doses of these vaccines, which are produced by Sinopharm and Sinovac, may provide relatively lower protection against omicron. The Post’s Eva Dou and Lyric Li reported Monday that China is facing the looming question of how to administer booster shots to its population of 1.4 billion, of whom more than 80 percent have been vaccinated, mostly with Sinopharm and Sinovac.
But Chinese vaccines have also been widely distributed internationally, meaning concerns about their efficacy go far beyond Beijing’s reach. In Singapore, the government said last week that even three doses of either Sinopharm or Sinovac would not be enough to confer fully vaccinated status and that fourth doses would now be required nine months after a third dose — already an extension of the initial regimen.
If not, “your full vaccination status will lapse. This will amongst other things, affect your access to vaccination-differentiated venues such as malls, restaurants, libraries, etc.,” Singapore Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said Wednesday.
The impact could stretch far wider. Since August, both Sinovac and Sinopharm have supplied a substantial amount of doses to Covax, the U.N.-backed global vaccine-sharing scheme. Some accounts suggest that nations receiving doses through the initiative are now less interested in the Chinese vaccines.
Data compiled by UNICEF at the end of December showed that shipments of both Sinopharm and Sinovac sent out through bilateral or multilateral deals, bilateral donations and donations to Covax declined in the final months of 2021 — from a peak of over 100 million doses for each vaccine in the summer and early fall to roughly half that in November and December.
Russia’s major vaccine hope was Sputnik V. Moscow raced to put out that vaccine, which uses adenovirus viral vector technology, in 2020. Its backers now describe it as “the first registered vaccine against covid-19” in an aggressively proactive global marketing program.
These backers, the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), are currently rejecting any suggestion that Sputnik V could provide weaker protection against omicron. An English-language Twitter account for Sputnik V has been posting multiple news stories highlighting rising cases in countries that do not use the Russian-backed vaccine.
For Russia, Sputnik V has another pressing issue: a lack of international recognition. Unlike Sinopharm and Sinovac, the vaccine has not been given emergency use listing by the World Health Organization nor any major Western health authority.
Sputnik V’s backers have suggested for months that approval is imminent. “We believe that we can supply Covax around 200 million doses a year, 200 to 300 million,” RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev said in an interview with the Associated Press in October. “We just need the WHO approval to work with Covax.”
And for months, WHO officials have pushed back, initially citing a lack of required data from the vaccine developers. “The submission of data is expected by the end of December 2021, and I hope that the process will be completed speedily following this,” WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge said in an interview with Russian state media late last month.
The lack of WHO emergency use approval has a significant impact. For example, many countries, including the United States, only accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with a vaccine recognized by the WHO. And it isn’t just Russians who are impacted by these rules — millions who received Sputnik V doses in Latin America would be impacted as well.
Not being on WHO’s emergency use listing (EUL) is just one of Sputnik V’s problems. There has also been low uptake of the vaccine in Russia and international complaints about the slow pace of deliveries. According to UNICEF data, less than 80 million doses of Sputnik V and its one-dose sister vaccine, Sputnik Light, were sent out internationally in 2021.
That’s well behind the 528 million sent out by Sinopharm and the 729 million from Sinovac, the UNICEF data shows — and leagues away from the 1.5 billion Pfizer-BioNTech doses administered outside of the United States.
On one level, this looks like a major failure for Beijing and Moscow. China and Russia had linked their vaccine exports to foreign policy in a way that wasn’t hard to miss: China would export doses to countries that sided with it over Taiwan, for example, while Russia provided its doses to areas controlled by Moscow-backed rebels in Ukraine as Kyiv struggled to negotiate for alternative vaccines.
Both Chinese and Russian figures once questioned the safety of Western vaccines, including the popular mRNA vaccines like those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Now, Chinese firms are working on their own mRNA vaccines (a Russian firm tried to develop one in 2020, but there are few details on what became of it).
But the United States and Europe have also tied their own vaccine donations to foreign policy goals. U.S. health officials working under President Donald Trump lobbied Brazil to reject the Sputnik V vaccine in 2020, according to a document later published by the Department of Health and Human Services, describing Russia as an “ill-intentioned state.”
There had been hopes that Chinese and Russian vaccines could fill gaps left in global supply chains. But even before omicron, there were problems with that hypothesis. Countries with successful vaccination programs relying on Sinovac and Sinopharm saw huge surges in cases this summer, undermining confidence in the Chinese vaccines.
And though RDIF has spoken of their ambition to supply Covax, the long undersupplied global vaccine initiative, that ambition has so far come to nothing — lack of WHO EUL has blocked that hope for now.
But if international demand for Chinese and Russian vaccines, along with other non-mRNA vaccines, continues to drop, more pressure could fall on Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Last week, a group of advocates released a report that estimated that it could take 22 billion doses of mRNA vaccines to slow the pandemic’s spread in 2022. That’s 15 billion more than current projections show.
Such a scenario is arguably a win for U.S. and European vaccine diplomacy. But if any shortfall can’t be made up by other doses, it would be a big loss for the world.