China’s Sinovac vaccine may be better than previously thought: It was 94% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in a real-world study, Indonesian officials said

Sinovac China Coronavirus Vaccine
An employee manually inspects syringes of the SARS CoV-2 Vaccine for COVID-19 produced by Sinovac at its factory in Beijing on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020.

  • Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccine was an estimated 98% effective at preventing death in Indonesian health workers.
  • It was also 96% effective at preventing hospitalization, Indonesian officials said.
  • The data suggests the vaccine may be more effective than previously thought.
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The two-dose COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese biotech Sinovac is highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death, Indonesian health officials said Wednesday.

The vaccine, called Coronavac, was an estimated 98% effective at preventing death and 96% effective at preventing hospitalization, Pandji Dhewantara, an Indonesian health ministry official, said in a press briefing.

The stats were based on 128,000 health workers who received the shot in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and were monitored between January and March.

Dhewantara said that 94% of workers hadn’t caught symptomatic COVID-19, and protection kicked in 7 days after the second dose.

The study compared vaccinated people with non-vaccinated people to estimate the effectiveness of the shot.

The results haven’t been published in a medical journal or scrutinized by experts.

The vaccine costs about $30 per dose, according to Chinese state media, and can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, which could make it a useful option for low- and middle-income countries struggling to secure vaccines. As of April 12, more than 180 million CoronaVac doses have been sent to 30 low-and-middle income countries, including Brazil, Chile, and the Philippines.

About 22.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been given in Indonesia, with just under 5% of Indonesians receiving at least one dose, mostly from Sinovac, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

Better than trials?

Indonesia’s results could mean that Coronavac works better in real-life than expected.

Late-stage trial results from Brazil released April 12 of more than 12,000 health workers showed that the shot was 50.7% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The numbers in the Brazil trial weren’t large enough to draw conclusions about its effectiveness against severe COVID-19.

Sinovac said that it required more information about Indonesia’s study to be able to comment on the results, per Bloomberg.

Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist at the University of Auckland, told Bloomberg that trials can fail to predict the overall impact of vaccines, something that can only be seen in the real world after widespread use.

“Reducing the bulk of disease is not only essential to save lives but also to reduce the chances of problematic variants appearing,” she said.

Other possible reasons for the disparity between results include that the median age of the Indonesian study was 31, whereas the Brazilian trial included people over 60 – about 5% of participants.

In Turkey, CoronaVac was 83.5% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in a study of more than 10,000 participants aged between 19 and 59.

There were also a relatively low number of new cases in Indonesia during the study period. Between January and March, there were between 18 to 47 daily new coronavirus cases per million people in Indonesia, according to Our World in Data. For comparison, the number of daily new infections in the US during the same period was between 193 and 758 cases per million.

The Brazilian trial was conducted when cases were surging.

Yin Weidong, Sinovac CEO, told Bloomberg in a previous interview that real world results and scientific data from clinical trials would allow the world to judge the vaccine.

“We encourage our partners and governments in countries where our vaccine is being used to release such data as soon as possible,” he said.

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Global coronavirus deaths just topped 3 million, led by surges in India and Brazil

brazil covid deaths
Cemetery workers in full protective gear lower a coffin that contain the remains of a person who died from complications related to COVID-19 at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Global coronavirus deaths surpassed 3 million on Saturday, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. That means more people have died of the coronavirus than inhabit Lisbon, Portugal or Chicago, Illinois.

More than a third of those deaths occurred in just three counties: the US, Brazil, and India.

The US represents by far the majority of the world’s coronavirus deaths, due in large part to a devastating winter surge. More than 566,000 people in the US have died of the coronavirus thus far – nearly 20% of the global total.

Brazil has reported nearly 370,000 total coronavirus deaths, while India has reported around 175,000.

“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic where we have proven control measures,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for COVID-19, said earlier this week. “It is time right now where everyone has to take stock and have a reality check about what we need to be doing.”

The world hit a similarly sobering milestone in January, when coronavirus deaths topped 2 million. Coronavirus deaths topped 1 million in September.

But the landscape of the pandemic is different now: Countries are in a race to get shots into arms as quickly as possible as they battle more contagious variants that, in some cases, can evade protection from vaccines.

The available vaccine supply is still scarce in many parts of the world: COVAX, the UN-sponsored program to ensure equal distribution of coronavirus vaccines, has only delivered enough doses for roughly 0.25% of the world’s population. In low-income countries, just 1 in more than 500 people have received their shots, compared with 1 in 4 people in high-income countries, according to the WHO.

In India and Brazil in particular, slow vaccine rollouts, a lack of social distancing, and the spread of variants has pushed hospitals into crisis mode yet again.

Large gatherings abound in India as deaths climb

India has immunized less than 8% of its population since its national vaccine program started exactly three months ago. During that time, average new daily coronavirus deaths have increased more than four-fold, from around 180 per day to more than 1,000 per day. Local media outlets have reported long lines at hospitals, ventilator shortages, and bodies piling up at crematoriums.

“Earlier 15 to 20 bodies were coming in a day and now around 80 to 100 dead bodies are coming daily,” Kamlesh Sailor, the president of a trust operating a crematorium in Surat, told Bloomberg earlier this week.

At the same time, local residents have gathered for large events that could fuel the virus’ spread, including election rallies, festivals, and religious pilgrimages. At least 50 million Hindus crowded along the Ganga river earlier this week for a religious festival that has now been linked to at least 2,000 coronavirus cases.

Like many countries, India is also dealing with its own local variants: Scientists from the Indian state of Maharashtra identified a new strain in March that’s linked to between 15% and 20% of cases there.

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A health worker administers the AstraZeneca vaccine to a member of the Gurugram Police in Gurugram, India on February 5, 2021.

A ‘raging inferno of an outbreak’ in Brazil

Brazil’s average daily coronavirus deaths have also doubled in the last three months, from around 950 per day to more than 2,800 per day. Overwhelmed hospitals are now running low on supplemental oxygen and sedatives.

“What you are dealing with here is a raging inferno of an outbreak,” Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the WHO director general, said at a press briefing on April 9.

In December, Brazil become a hotspot for P.1, a more contagious variant that seems to partially evade immunity from vaccines or previous infectious.

A March study suggested that P.1 was 40% to 120% more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus. Researchers from Brazil’s leading public-health body, Fiocruz, warned last Wednesday that the variant is mutating in “particularly worrying” ways that could make it more resistant to vaccines.

Meanwhile, just 12% of Brazil’s population has been vaccinated so far.

brazil coronavirus covid-19
The remains of a woman who died from complications related to COVID-19 are placed into a niche by cemetery workers and relatives at the Inahuma cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on April 13, 2021.

Brazil rejected an offer to purchase 70 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in August, instead betting on AstraZeneca’s shot to drive its vaccine rollout. With doses from the nation’s two biggest laboratories now in short supply, Brazil is relying on backup doses of China’s Sinovac shot.

“The big problem is that Brazil did not look for alternatives when it had the chance,” Claudio Maierovitch, former head of Brazil’s health regulator, told the Associated Press. “When several countries were placing their bets, signing contracts with different suppliers, the Brazilian government didn’t even have vaccination on its agenda.”

Language from Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has also fueled vaccine skepticism. Bolsonaro previously joked that the Pfizer shot could “turn you into an alligator.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has also questioned the effectiveness of masks, rebuffed calls for lockdowns, and suggested that the virus is no more than a “little flu.”

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