How soon will a Covid-19 vaccine be available for use by the public?

A jab that produces antibodies to fight off the virus was approved in the UAE for emergency use

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The UAE’s health minister has received the first approved dose of a vaccine designed to protect the public from Covid-19.

Abdulrahman Al Owais was given a jab developed in a testing operation between the UAE and China on Saturday after a phase III study to test its effectiveness.

The UAE trial has now entered its final stages but tests have shown the vaccine is safe and generates antibodies that fight the virus.

Mr Al Owais said the injection to protect against the coronavirus could be used in “cases of emergency” for frontline workers.

"The emergency use of the vaccine is fully and completely compatible with the laws and regulations," he said.

"And our goal is to provide all safety means for the first line of defence to protect them from any dangers they may face due to the nature of their work.”

The vaccine was approved for use among emergency personnel in the UAE last week. More vaccines are being tested around the world are approaching the same point.

So what happens next?

What have UAE's authorities learned from the phase III trial?

Phase I and II trials of the Sinopharm vaccine were conducted in China, when it was shown to generate neutralising antibodies in 100 per cent of volunteers.

The UAE was chosen to conduct a phase III trial due to it being home to over 200 nationalities, which would show how multiple ethnicities respond.

The study began here in July.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Hamed, chairman of the Department of Health Abu Dhabi, led the way, taking the first shot during the outset.

Dr Jamal Al Kaabi, acting undersecretary of the department, which is overseeing the trials, volunteered to be second to test the vaccine, which was produced by Chinese drug maker Sinopharm.

In total, 31,000 people have since been recruited in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in the UAE to test two strains of the vaccine.

More people have been recruited for the same trial in Jordan and Bahrain.

UAE approves Covid-19 vaccine for frontline workers

UAE approves Covid-19 vaccine for frontline workers

Volunteers in the UAE are contacted frequently to share how they are feeling after they received each of the two doses, and are encouraged to report if they feel unwell. They also received a smart watch to monitor information such as sleep patterns and heart rate.

The trial is still ongoing, but Mr Al Owais said it has shown the vaccine “resulted in a strong response and the generation of antibodies to the virus”.

What side effects have been recorded?

During last Monday’s media briefing, Dr Nawal Al Kaabi, chairwoman of the National Clinical Committee for Covid-19, said volunteers displayed only minor symptoms, such as a sore throat, during the trial.

Other minor side effects, common in many vaccines, included headaches, fatigue and slight pain in the injection area. More than 1,000 volunteers with history of chronic illness have not experienced any complications after taking the Sinopharm vaccine.

Doctors said minor side effects were to be expected.

Dr Srinivasa Rao, internal medicine specialist at NMC Specialty Hospital in Al Nahda, Dubai, told The National any vaccine could have transient side effects. And many do.

“They are generally for one day, two days or three days maximum. They typically include headaches and body pain or malaise,” he said.

What happens next?

A phase III trial is the final step before a vaccine is approved for use among the general public.

It is not known when the trial will conclude in the UAE, but Mr Al Owais said on Monday that it was now in its “final stages”.

When will the vaccine be ready?

Sinopharm said the vaccine could be on the market as early as December.

"After the third stage of international clinical trial ends, we can register the inactivated vaccine," Liu Jingzhen, chairman of Sinopharm, told China's Guangming Ribao newspaper.

“According to our estimates, by the end of the year, it may appear on the market," he said.

It is expected to cost about $150 (Dh551) per dose, he said. Several governments have already said a vaccine would be made available for free.

How effective will the Covid-19 vaccines be?

Experts have cautioned against holding out hope that a vaccine will be a silver bullet to end the pandemic.

There are about 140 in development.

But it is unlikely that any of them will offer 100 per cent protection. Few vaccines even approach that level, with the exceptions of the MMR and polio inoculations.

The effectiveness of the annual flu vaccine varies, and was as low as 10 per cent in 2004. That means it protected only 10 per cent of those exposed to the flu that year.

Dr Anthony Fauci, one of the United States' leading disease experts, said he would like a Covid-19 vaccine that was 75 per cent effective, or more. But he said this might not be possible.

Inside Abu Dhabi's clinic for Covid-19 vaccine trial

Inside Abu Dhabi's clinic for Covid-19 vaccine trial

"We don't know yet what the efficacy might be. We don't know if it will be 50 per cent or 60 per cent," he said in August.

Add to the fact it will take many months, possibly years, to ensure all 7.5 billion people are vaccinated, or at least enough numbers to prevent it from spreading.

Possible shortages of vital vaccine equipment like glass vials will further slow the process. And not everyone who is eligible will take it.

For these reasons, experts said a vaccine is the beginning of the end, not the solution in itself. The use of masks and social distancing will be required for months, possibly years, in the future.

Where else in the world has a Covid-19 vaccine been approved for limited use?

Russia approved its version of the vaccine in August before phase III trials had begun. The move cleared the vaccine for use in a small number of citizens from vulnerable groups, including healthcare workers. Mass production of the vaccine for widespread use is expected to begin this month.

China has also approved the use of Covid-19 vaccines for limited use, including among members of the military.

Sinopharm told China National Radio last week it has already vaccinated “hundreds of thousands” of Chinese citizens as part of an emergency use programme. Officials singled out healthcare workers and custom officials would be among those to receive the jab as part of the programme when it was first announced.