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Analysts: UAE Taking Some Risk with Emergency Use of COVID Vaccine
A worker in the emirate of Sharjah sprays disinfectant aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus in March. (François Nel/Getty Images)

Analysts: UAE Taking Some Risk with Emergency Use of COVID Vaccine

Global health expert expresses caution over need for further data on safety, efficacy of Chinese serum

The United Arab Emirates has begun limited use of a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine for front-line health-care workers that it says has been successful so far in Phase III clinical trials – although a global health expert says that optimism might be premature.

Top health officials in the Gulf state recently received a dose of the inactivated vaccine developed by Sinopharm, a unit of the China National Pharmaceutical Group.

First in line for the jab was UAE Health Minister Abdulrahman Al Owais, who approved emergency use of a vaccine made of virus particles that are incapable of producing the disease. Owais said that the results from 31,000 volunteers of 125 different nationalities over six weeks of trials in Abu Dhabi showed that the vaccine was safe.

“This step clearly underlines the interest and support of the wise leadership for all workers in the health sector and its commitment to providing them with the highest levels of safety,” the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP) said in a statement.

However, a leading global health expert has told The Media Line of his surprise at the Emirates’ decision given that the Phase III trials are not yet finished and systematic data is still unavailable.

“Having authorization of emergency use even before the systematic data becomes available is rushing to have the vaccine available without the proper justification,” said Dr. Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Having authorization of emergency use even before the systematic data becomes available is rushing to have the vaccine available without the proper justification

Huang says that Phase III clinical trials are usually completed before emergency use is authorized, noting that major pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have said they will not apply for emergency authorization until the vaccine has demonstrated safety and efficacy through this stage, the final testing level before there can be mass distribution.

The world is still waiting for a vaccine that will provide herd immunity for the coronavirus, which has stricken more than 31 million people, killed nearly a million and disrupted the global economic system.

According to the World Health Organization, out of about 38 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in clinical evaluation, nine have advanced to Phase III clinical trials, including two inactivated candidates from Sinopharm used in the UAE testing.

Russia is the only country so far to approve a vaccine, doing so more than a month ago – before completion of Phase III clinical trials. On Tuesday, in a speech to the United Nations, President Vladimir Putin offered to provide free doses of the Sputnik-V vaccine to UN staff.

“Demonstrating that a vaccine is safe and effective is usually a very time-consuming process, and it is remarkable how quickly development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, including Sinopharm’s product, have progressed,” Ed Hutchinson, research fellow at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, told The Media Line.

Demonstrating that a vaccine is safe and effective is usually a very time-consuming process, and it is remarkable how quickly development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, including Sinopharm’s product, have progressed

Hutchinson, however, went on to emphasize the importance of widescale testing to confidently recommend a vaccine.

As of Wednesday, the UAE had 87,530 coronavirus cases, with 406 deaths and 76,995 recoveries, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker.

Robert Mogielnicki, resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, believes the UAE is taking a “calculated risk.”

“This move doesn’t strike me as suggestive that UAE officials view this emergency use of the vaccine as an immediate solution,” Mogielnicki told The Media Line. “Rather, it seems designed to provide an added layer of protection for workers coming in contact with the coronavirus on a regular basis.”

It seems designed to provide an added layer of protection for workers coming in contact with the coronavirus on a regular basis

MOHAP administered the first doses to medical and nursing staff at Al Qassimi Hospital for Women and Children in the emirate of Sharjah.

Abu Dhabi’s English-language daily newspaper The National cited Dr. Nawal Al-Kaabi, chairperson of the National Clinical Committee for Coronavirus, as saying that clinical trial volunteers felt only minor symptoms, such as a sore throat, after receiving the vaccine.

The first two phases of the trials were conducted in China, with Sinopharm reportedly choosing Abu Dhabi because of the large number of foreigners residing there. The trials were extended to the emirate of Sharjah. Phase III trials are also taking place in Bahrain and Jordan.

In the UAE, the trials are being conducted jointly by Sinopharm and the Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence company G42 Healthcare while being overseen by MOHAP and the Department of Health-Abu Dhabi.

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