Egypt has become the first African country to get the Chinese coronavirus vaccine after receiving the first batch from the Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm on 10 December.
Despite official statements from the Egyptian health minister that the vaccine shots will be available to citizens free of charge, many seem reluctant to take it because no one knows how safe it is.
“The issue of the vaccines is somewhat confusing. There are many vaccines that we hear about worldwide, but until now we do not know which is the best and the least harmful,” Hend Shawki, 45, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“I knew about the Chinese vaccine from local TV shows where experts say some information about it is lacking. For me, it’s very difficult to judge it and take a decision,” she said.
Eslam Emad, a 37-year-old father of two, said “at least not now”, when asked if he intends to take the vaccine. “Even the regular flu vaccines sometimes have side effects and so I prefer to wait until I am sure of its efficacy and how dangerous are the side effects,” Emad said.
Health Minister Hala Zayed, who took two doses of Sinopharm’s vaccine in November during its phase three clinical trials carried out in Egypt, said that she experienced a high temperature for three days after receiving the first dose, albeit confirming that the symptoms were expected.
Zayed stated that the Sinopharm vaccine has proven 86 per cent effective against coronavirus, 99 per cent effective in producing antibodies, and 100 per cent effective in patients suffering from moderate to severe symptoms.
Following the arrival of the vaccine, the minister said that successive batches of the vaccine would reach Egypt in the following weeks, adding that “priority in distributing the vaccine will be given to the medical staff in isolation hospitals, people with chronic diseases, and the elderly.”
The advent of the Chinese vaccine came following a rebound in daily infections that Egypt has been recently witnessing.
On Monday, Egypt passed the 500-patient a day mark for the first time since July, recording 511 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total infection tally to 121,086 since the emergence of the virus locally in mid-February.
Chinese Ambassador to Egypt Liao Liqiang, who accompanied Zayed in receiving the shipment, said the arrival of the vaccine “is proof of the deep ties” between Chine and Egypt.
A day earlier, on 9 December, the UAE approved the use of the Chinese coronavirus vaccine for general use, the first worldwide, citing no serious safety concerns. In Egypt, 3,000 volunteers have participated in Sinopharm’s vaccine clinical trials out of 45,000 volunteers in 10 countries, including the UAE during the past three months.
The controversy among the public reflected the situation among experts. Serag Zakaria and Ashraf Omar, well-known professors of gastroenterology in Egypt, gave diverging opinions on the Chinese vaccine on Sunday when hosted by Amr Adib on MBC Masr.
While Zakaria said he and his family “are assured and will directly take the vaccine”, Omar noted that he “will wait” for the final results.
“There is no absolute truth, especially in science, and we are now in the stage that comes prior to the emergence of the truth. We are still missing a lot of information not only about the vaccine but about the virus itself,” Omar said.
Nevertheless, Omar stressed some segments of people, such as the elderly and doctors, “have to take it” but those “who are not forced can wait”.
Normally, the vaccine would take 73 months to be tested and approved, Omar says, but in light of this pandemic, approval was issued after only eight months.
“Many of the drugs that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and have already been circulated and used, are later withdrawn from the markets. Their approval is annulled after discovering new side effects. Thus, reality says that some side effects do not appear until after a while,” Omar argued.
Omar said he had the same fears about the vaccine manufactured by the American drug-maker Moderna, which says its vaccine is based on a new technology that is being used for the first time on humans and has never before been approved for widespread use.
Sinopharm’s vaccine is made of coronaviruses that have been killed or weakened, employing the traditional method of using an inactive virus to trigger an immune response, whereas Moderna’s vaccine is made with genetic materials known as mRNA.
Both the Sinopharm and Moderna vaccines require two doses to be effective. Sinopharm doses should be taken at least 21 days apart while in Moderna the period increases to 28 days.
Sinopharm has said its vaccine needs to be refrigerated at temperatures of only two to eight degrees Celsius and is stable for three years, making it easier to be stored and distributed.
In contrast, Moderna’s vaccine could stay stable for only 30 days between two to eight degrees Celsius. For shipping or long-term storage it requires industrial freezers as it needs to be kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius for a maximum of six months.
“Although the Chinese don’t disclose their scientific secrets, I am sure of their vaccine. In addition to its safe manufacturing technology, China was the first in dealing with the pandemic and also in developing its vaccines, and for this reason, the period of follow-up vaccinations is longer than the newer vaccines,” professor Zakaria said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.