The UAE has struck a deal to manufacture the Sinopharm vaccine, in addition to securing millions of readily available shots for the population.
The country will begin producing the vaccine under licence from the Chinese drug maker later this year to meet not just local but also anticipated global demand.
In an exclusive interview, Dr Nawal Al Kaabi, chairwoman of the National Covid-19 Clinical Management Committee, and technology firm G42 outlined a series of major developments to expect in the coming months.
– the manufacture of the Sinopharm vaccine in the Emirates by G42 and various partners
– a plan to achieve herd immunity by later this year with up to 70 per cent of the population covered
– further investigation of the new strains and the ability of the vaccine to fight them off
– studying how long immunity lasts once a person receives two shots
– a probe into whether the vaccine is suitable for children
– a campaign to ensure volunteers who were given a placebo during the Phase 3 trial receive the vaccination
– the vaccine will remain free and voluntary, though officials said they expect some companies will insist on employees being vaccinated
– officials were not concerned by Sinopharm's 79 per cent efficacy – highlighting a Phase 3 trial analysis that found the vaccine was 100 per cent effective at preventing serious Covid-19 symptoms
'Self-sufficient' vaccine production
"We are in advanced stages of discussion with our key strategic partners and are happy to announce that local manufacturing of the vaccine will be done in the UAE," Ashish Koshy, chief executive of G42 Healthcare, told The National.
"We intend to commence production this year."
He said the number of vaccine doses that could be produced locally was still being studied, but these would bolster the shots that had already been secured from Sinopharm.
On Tuesday, China National Biotec Group – the division of Sinopharm that created the vaccine – confirmed it had delivered three million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the UAE to date.
The vaccines eventually produced in the Emirates would supplement that.
“The goal is to be self-sufficient and to ensure that manufacturing can be done from A to Z locally," Mr Koshy added.
It is hoped the campaign will lead to at least 70 per cent of the population being inoculated.
That would in theory lead to 'herd immunity' – with the number of cases and people spreading the coronavirus significantly dropping.
A dramatic spike over Christmas and New Year – which saw new cases run close to 2,000 for four days – has only reinforced the need for the public to get vaccinated soon.
Cutting critical cases
Dr Al Kaabi, who is also principle investigator of the Sinopharm Phase 3 trial in Abu Dhabi and chief medical officer at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, said: "It is hard to determine what percentage of the population needs to vaccinated to achieve herd immunity but our hope is more than 70 per cent."
Last week, Sinopharm announced its vaccine was 79 per cent effective against the virus in final stage trials.
That was lower than the 86 per cent the UAE found in a Phase 3 trial of 31,000 people, but still well above the threshold for regulatory approval.
Dr Al Kaabi said the vaccine still provides high-level protection against serious forms of Covid-19.
“As an infectious disease expert, I see no difference," she said.
"Both are accurate and both have shown that it has a 100 per cent protection when it comes to severe cases - and this the most important in a pandemic.
"We need to prevent severe disease and hospitalisation."
UAE leaders and officials receive vaccine - in pictures
Next, officials will turn to the research stage of the project.
This will focus on understanding more about the vaccine's long-term effectiveness – and whether it would stretch beyond six months.
As with the seasonal flu vaccine, a new shot must be taken every year.
Understanding the protection the vaccine delivers is critical at a time when new and more virulent strains are being discovered.
“There will be a lot of mutations and variants but, since we are using an inactivated virus, then [the vaccine] is less likely to be affected by the new strain,” said Dr Nawal Al Kaabi.
"But to confirm we are doing further testing."
Each of the officials thanked the tens of thousands of volunteers who have taken part in Abu Dhabi's Sinopharm trials.
Among them are many residents who were given a placebo, instead of the trial vaccine, which is a key part of any major study.
Dr Walid Zaher, chief research officer and vaccine project leader at G42 Healthcare, said there were efforts under way to ensure each of those volunteers were now given the approved vaccine.
“Currently there are ongoing efforts to find a solution towards the volunteers, especially the placebo volunteers, and their right to be protected during a pandemic,” he said.
“The goal is to vaccinate them while at the same time not compromising the clinical trials of not only Sinopharm, but the other manufacturers as well.”