Coronavirus cases are surging in Pakistan, as a Chinese vaccine is undergoing trials at three hospitals in the country. Islamabad has spent millions to secure doses — how much longer will Pakistanis have to wait?
Chinese vaccine makers are currently carrying out final trials of a COVID vaccine candidate in Pakistan, as the South Asian country is experiencing a steady rise in new infections, with around 20,000 cases reported over the past week.
In November, Islamabad allocated over $150 million (€123 million) to secure vaccine doses from various developers, and China is at the top of the list.
During the first wave of the coronavirus in spring, China provided Pakistan with medical equipment, protective gear, and dispatched medical experts to assist with Islamabad's response to the pandemic.
The two countries had also been holding talks over the issue of vaccine for some time, and in September, vaccine trials for a Chinese candidate began in Pakistan.
The vaccine in question is being developed by CanSino Biologics and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology. China carried out phase-one and phase-two trials at home, with the final phase-three trials being conducted in Pakistan and several other countries including Saudi Arabia and Russia.
In Pakistan, more than 8,000 volunteers have been given doses of the vaccine at hospitals in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. A second round will add 10,000 volunteers, according to Pakistani drug regulators.
China the 'best option' for Pakistan
Dr. Javed Akram, vice chancellor of Lahore's University of Health Sciences, where trials are being held, told DW he expects the results to be released in January.
"The government is pinning hopes on the Chinese vaccine, but it is also talking to other companies as well. We think the Chinese vaccine would be available sooner," Akram said, adding medical workers will be first in line when a vaccine is ready.
Mohammad Zaka ur Rehman, former chairman of the Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PPMA), told DW that western vaccine makers are already committed to providing doses in the US and Europe.
"For Pakistan, China is the best option because Chinese companies have not been flooded with such orders," Rehman said, adding health authorities have already made arrangements for distributing and storing the vaccine.
Pakistan is also participating in the UN's COVAX program to potentially secure millions of doses by the end of 2021. COVAX facilitates equitable access to a coronavirus vaccine in developing countries in cooperation with the global vaccine alliance, GAVI.
More transparency needed?
Although Pakistan wants a vaccine to be available quickly, questions have been raised about how the first phases of the trials were carried out in China.
Abdul Ghafoor Shoro of the Pakistan Medical Association told DW that results of the preliminary trials were not made public by the government.
"Where is the third-party evaluation of these findings?" he said, claiming China and Pakistan did not involve independent medical bodies in evaluations.
However, Dr. Akram said this criticism is unfounded."We are not bound to inform any medical body about these tests or trials of vaccine," he said.
"When a government agrees to such research, it signs a non-disclosure agreement, which means we cannot reveal confidential data or information. We are following good clinical practices, are placing an effective monitoring system, and do not need the politicization of this whole process."