Marie Neige, a call centre operator in Seychelles, was eager to be vaccinated. Like the majority of the residents in the tiny island nation, she was offered China’s Sinopharm vaccine in March, and was looking forward to the idea of being fully protected in a few weeks.
On Sunday, she tested positive for the coronavirus. “I was shocked,” said Neige, 30, who is isolating at home. She said she has lost her sense of smell and taste and has a slightly sore throat. “The vaccine was supposed to protect us – not from the virus, but the symptoms,” she said. “I was taking precaution after precaution.”
China expected its Sinopharm vaccines to be the lynchpin of the country’s vaccine diplomacy programme – an easily transported dose that would protect not just Chinese citizens but also much of the developing world. In a bid to win goodwill, China has donated 13.3 million Sinopharm doses to other countries, according to Bridge Beijing, a consultancy that tracks China’s impact on global health.
Instead, the company, which has made two varieties of coronavirus vaccines, is facing mounting questions about the inoculations. First, there was the lack of transparency with its late-stage trial data. Now, Seychelles, the world’s most vaccinated nation, has had a surge in cases despite much of its population being inoculated with Sinopharm.
For the 56 countries counting on the Sinopharm shot to help them halt the pandemic, the news is a setback. For months, public health experts had focused on trying to close the access gap between rich and poorer nations. Now, scientists are warning that developing nations that choose to use the Chinese vaccines, with their relatively weaker efficacy rates, could end up lagging behind countries that choose vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. That gap could allow the pandemic to continue in countries that have fewer resources to fight it.
“You really need to use high-efficacy vaccines to get that economic benefit because otherwise they’re going to be living with the disease long-term,” said Raina MacIntyre, who heads the biosecurity programme at the Kirby Institute of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “The choice of vaccine matters.”
Nowhere have the consequences been clearer than in Seychelles, which relied heavily on a Sinopharm vaccine to inoculate more than 60 per cent of its population. The tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar and with a population of just over 100,000, is battling a surge of the virus and has had to reimpose a lockdown.
Among the vaccinated population that has had two doses, 57 per cent were given Sinopharm, while 43 per cent were given AstraZeneca. Some 37 per cent of new active cases are people who are fully vaccinated, according to the health ministry, which did not say how many people among them had the Sinopharm shot.