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Photo: EPA-EFE

Coronavirus: immunity induced by Sinopharm jab questioned after UAE offers booster shots

  • United Arab Emirates and Bahrain say they will provide a third shot of the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine to people who completed the two-dose regimen six months ago
  • But expert suggests third jab should be of a different product to improve the immune response
The immunity induced by Chinese firm Sinopharm’s Covid-19 vaccine has been brought into question after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said they would provide booster shots to people who completed the two-dose regimen six months ago.

Some experts say the offer suggests the vaccine is producing a weak immune response, which can be boosted, but better with a different product, rather than a third dose of the same one.

“As part of the UAE’s proactive strategy to provide maximum protection for society, an additional supportive dose of Sinopharm is now available for people who have received the vaccine previously and who have completed more than six months since the second dose,” the UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority said on Tuesday.

“The priority to receive an additional dose of Sinopharm is for the senior citizens and people with chronic diseases,” it said.

Bahrain issued a similar statement soon after, saying booster shots would be given to recipients of the Sinopharm jabs, starting with priority groups.

Around the world, countries are studying whether to give a booster shot to extend immunity. Britain officially started a trial on Wednesday to see whether people who completed the immunisation regime would need a boost shot, and which vaccine to give them if they did.

Executives of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna also said last month that people who received both doses of their vaccines would probably need a booster shot within 12 months, and possibly annually.

The Chinese vaccine, which has a 79 per cent efficacy rate, has been licensed for emergency use by the World Health Organization, which demands Covid-19 vaccines offer an efficacy rate of at least 50 per cent and provide immunity for at least six months. Sinopharm said in a statement earlier this month that more than 200 million doses of its product had been administered globally.

“It is a concern that these inactivated vaccines appear to have very weak immunogenicity such that they need a third dose just six months after the second dose is given,” said Nikolai Petrovsky, a vaccine developer and professor at Flinders University in Australia, adding that the problem might stem from the small amount of spike protein that inactivated vaccines contain or a weaker kind of adjuvant used to boost the vaccine’s performance.

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Better immunity could be achieved by mixing vaccines that used different technologies, rather than administering a third shot, he said.

“In my experience with other vaccines such as hepatitis B, little benefit can be expected from subsequent boosting so what is needed is a new approach,” Petrovsky said.

“We will inevitably see more use of mix and match regimens as adenovirus vaccines [the technology behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca product] cannot be used for further boosts due to anti-vector immunity, so a different vaccine, such as recombinant protein will be needed to boost the hundreds of millions who have already been vaccinated with adenovirus vaccines in due course.”

Vaccine developer Nikolai Petrovsky says it is “a concern that these inactivated vaccines appear to have very weak immunogenicity”. Photo: EPA-EFE

A Chinese vaccine expert, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the industry had been studying the antibody levels of vaccinated and recovered patients and was working on ways to improve immunisation.

“Vaccination using different technologies for their advantages is better, but a third dose of an inactivated vaccine is acceptable if no other options are available,” the person said, adding that the Chinese authorities would arrange ways to boost the immune response in the future if it were needed.

The UAE hosted the largest final-stage clinical trials of the Sinopharm product in July last year. It is now being produced in Abu Dhabi through a joint venture of China National Biotec Group – Sinopharm’s vaccine subsidiary – and its trials partner G42 Healthcare.

The UAE has one of the highest inoculation rates in the world, with nearly 74 per cent of those eligible for jabs having received them. However, it continues to report more than 1,000 new infections every day. It has remained open for business and visitors during its vaccination drive.

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The Chinese embassy in the UAE last week warned Chinese citizens there to wear masks and avoid using public transport and joining large gatherings.

As of Tuesday, China had administered more than 435 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, mostly inactivated ones. The National Health Commission did not immediately respond to requests for information on the possibility of introducing booster shots.

Chinese researchers are conducting a trial to see if administering the adenovirus-vectored vaccine made by CanSino Biologics, followed by a protein subunit vaccine produced by Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical can boost immunity. The preliminary results are expected next month.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Doubts raised over Chinese jab