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Egypt's coronavirus vaccine: A question of trust

Will locally produced coronavirus vaccines command public trust, asks Ahmed Morsy

Ahmed Morsy , Saturday 17 Jul 2021
A question of trust
File photo: One of the Egyptian medical staff receiving coronavirus vaccine
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Egypt is producing the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine through the state-owned Egyptian Holding Company for Biological Products and Vaccines (VACSERA), and aims to manufacture 80 million doses by the end of 2021. The Sinovac vaccine was approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for emergency use on 1 June, and by the Egyptian Drug Authority (EDA) in April.

Around 2.4 million doses of the locally manufactured Sinovac vaccine will be available in vaccination centres nationwide by the end of this month, says Heath Ministry Spokesperson Khaled Megahed, and Egypt expects to receive shipments of raw materials sufficient to produce 7.5 million additional doses soon. 

“I am reluctant to take the vaccine, whether it is manufactured locally or abroad,” Mahmoud Helmi, a 31-year-old engineer, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “All the time there are rumours regarding the possible side effects, and I’ve become obsessed by the idea that the vaccine might kill me.”

Helmi’s reaction may be extreme, but it chimes in with that of large swathes of the population who believe it is too early to judge if the vaccines will have a long-term effect on their health.

Others doubt the efficacy of locally produced vaccines. “We have been raised to trust international products over local ones, and Western products over Chinese,” says Mustafa Mabrouk, a programmer.

Islam Anan, an epidemics specialist and a pharmaeconomics lecturer at Misr International University, told the Weekly that Chinese vaccines undergo the same clinical testing as other vaccines.

“For any vaccine to be approved by an international or regional health organisation it must pass several clinical tests which, once the vaccine is imported, are then repeated in Egypt,” says Anan.

Sinovac is an inactivated vaccine. Its easy storage requirements make it “very manageable, and particularly suitable” for low-resource settings, says the WHO. It prevents symptomatic disease in 51 per cent of those vaccinated, and severe Covid-19 in 100 per cent of the studied population. WHO recommends Sinovac-Corona Vac vaccine for use in adults 18 years and older.

Anan stresses that for a company to allow the manufacture of its vaccine in another country requires medical technology transfer, and the specifications of the product must be the same as that produced in the home country.

“No international company will sacrifice its reputation by reproducing a product bearing its name without standard specifications,” says Anan. He notes that thousands of medicines are produced in Egypt either in local plants of international pharmaceutical companies or reproduced in Egyptian drug factories.

Mohamed Hamza, 36, says he will not be taking the Chinese vaccine because his job requires him to travel. “I am going to Kuwait soon and it hasn’t not yet recognised Chinese vaccines. I want to take the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Mohamed Hamdi, 38, who travels between Saudi Arabia, where he works, and France and Egypt, where his wife and family lives, has similar concerns. “Neither France nor Saudi Arabia accept Chinese vaccinations,” he says.

Though the WHO has approved China’s two vaccines, a majority of countries has yet to follow suit.

“The still not recognised vaccines, especially the Chinese ones, will soon be within the loop. It is all about politics,” insists Anan.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve the Chinese vaccine which means, Anan explains, that countries that have traditionally depended on the FDA’s lead, are also delaying approval. But the delays, he argues, have nothing to do with the effectiveness of the vaccine. What they do mean, however, is that Egypt needs to continue importing vaccines for those who wish to travel.

Egypt, which started its vaccination campaign early this year, has imported millions of doses of the WHO-approved British AstraZeneca vaccine, the Chinese vaccines Sinopharm, and the non-WHO approved Russian Sputnik V.

“During the last few weeks Egypt has imported two million doses of the Sinovac and Sputnik V vaccines. At the end of this week, we will receive shipments of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines as well as two million doses of the Pfizer vaccine,” says Megahed.

On 12 July, the WHO reported that 4.9 million doses had been administered in Egypt which has a population of 102 million.

Although the world is in the midst of the largest and most rapid global deployment of vaccines that it has ever seen, concerns still remain over how long immunity induced by the coronavirus vaccines will last.

Regarding the period for the vaccine to be re-administrated, presidential health advisor Mohamed Awad Tag Al-Din said in media statements on Sunday that the coronavirus vaccine is similar to the seasonal influenza vaccination that doesn’t provide life-time immunity, known as solid immunity, and it needs to be repeated at least every year.

This comes though one of the major vaccine companies has announced that it needs to vaccinate citizens again after 6 months, Tag Al-Din said.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Scott Hensley, a professor of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying some people have incorrectly concluded that those vaccines offer only six months of protection, stressing that “that’s false.”

“We only have six months of data...Six months from now it’s likely we’ll learn we have one year of protection,” Hensley.

According to the international vaccine alliance GAVI, when new vaccines are developed, it is only through ongoing wide-scale use that we can better understand their ability to prevent transmission and the duration of immunity. Because of this, it has been too soon to say exactly how long these COVID-19 vaccines will protect people for, and whether we might need a booster shot further down the line. 

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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