By Murad Sezer and Peter Graff
ISTANBUL / LONDON (Reuters) – China steals a march against Western drug makers in COVID-19 vaccine race in developing countries. Indonesia and Turkey are starting big campaigns with a Chinese shot this week, Brazil will follow shortly and even the EU member Hungary will register.
Scientists in some western countries say China has been too slow to publish experimental data. Previous public reports on how well the vaccines work have been inconsistent, which Chinese companies attribute to methodological differences.
Still, countries with hundreds of millions of people desperately looking for a vaccine think China's shots are good enough.
With Western drug makers struggling to meet demand at home, Beijing has shipped millions of doses of Sinonaac Biotech to the world of CoronaVac and is also marketing a separate vaccine from another company, Sinopharm.
Exports even come as China battles its own infection flare-up that has brought more than 28 million people to their knees. China has given 10 million doses of vaccine at home.
Although some studies of the Sinovac shot have reported lower efficacy rates than some Western products, the countries that buy them say they can effectively prevent the most serious, deadly form of COVID-19.
Perhaps most importantly, they are also easy to manage and allow large programs to be launched quickly to save lives and prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed.
Turkey kicked off its program on Thursday with the Sinovac shot and said late afternoon it had already vaccinated more than 200,000 people – more in a few hours than France managed in three weeks. Health workers went first.
"We spent about 10 months in white overalls helping people fight for life. Health workers know very well that this situation cannot be taken lightly and that the vaccine is needed," said Surgeon General Nurettin Yiyit.
Hungary, which has complained about the "scandalously" slow roll-out of vaccines the European Union has bought on behalf of its 27 member states, reached an agreement on Thursday to buy the Sinopharm vaccine. If approved, it would be the first EU country to approve a Chinese vaccine.
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While all countries are likely to need more than one type of vaccine to meet demand, China has quickly missed shipping cans to countries at the end of the queue for western shots delivery.
Many developing countries may have months to wait for their first vaccines.
Turkey now has 3 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine in stock and Brazil has 6 million doses. Brazil is expected to start injecting next week.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo was the first to get a shot of the Sinovac vaccine to launch one of the largest immunization programs in the world on Wednesday. It is expected that 30 million Sinovac doses will be administered by the end of March, out of more than 122 million in 2022.
"Vaccinations are important to break the chain of COVID-19 transmission, provide us with protection and security for every Indonesian, and accelerate economic recovery," the president said.
The western company that has so far competed most directly with Sinovac in developing countries is AstraZeneca (NASDAQ :), whose vaccine, developed with the University of Oxford, is also cheap and easy to supply.
It will be the basis for the largest vaccination program of all, which India is expected to launch on Saturday. In preparation, more than 5 million cans were flown across the country this week.
The Indian government says it will pay less than $ 3 per dose for the first 100 million shots produced under license from the Indian Serum Institute.
Russia is set to launch a new, expanded version of its vaccination program next week, using its own Sputnik V-shot, which it is also heavily marketing in developing countries. It has received approval in Argentina, Belarus, and Serbia, although it has been slow to manufacture cans for large-scale export.
Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian sovereign wealth fund that supports the vaccine, said in an interview at the Reuters NEXT conference that Russia will apply for EU approval for the vaccine next month and will gain 25% of the global market share.