DUBAI (Reuters) – Bahrain has started inoculating frontline workers with a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine, state news agency BNA said on Tuesday, the latest country to take the unusual step of granting emergency approval for a shot before finishing safety and efficacy tests.
The program will use a shot developed by Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical company Sinopharm, which is in Phase III trials in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan, BNA said.
Bahrain’s Health Minister Faeqa bint Saeed Al Saleh said on Tuesday, in comments carried by BNA, that the use of the vaccine complies with the country’s regulations on exceptional licensing in emergency cases.
“The results of Phase I and Phase II clinical trials showed the vaccine is safe and effective,” she said, adding that Phase III trials were going smoothly and without serious side effects.
Around 7,770 people have so far volunteered in the Phase III trials in Bahrain and have received a second dose, the minister added.
The move is likely to stir a debate in the scientific community about the potential risks of vaccinating people before formal tests for efficacy and safety are finished, as governments scramble to tame the pandemic and revive struggling economies.
“If vaccines are to be rolled out before formal approval and licensing, there needs to be a clear appreciation of the risk/benefit ratio,” said Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at Britain’s University of Edinburgh.
Anyone getting inoculated in these circumstances should be made aware of the risks and monitored for side-effects, she said.
Russia in August become the first country in the world to grant regulatory approval to a coronavirus vaccine, launching a mass inoculation scheme after less than two months of human testing.
Tuesday’s move by Bahrain comes after the UAE in September authorized similar emergency use of the same vaccine for frontline workers at high risk of infection with the new coronavirus.
In July China launched its emergency use program for three experimental shots, including the Sinopharm one just as its Phase III trials began.
Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence and cloud computing company Group 42 (G42) which is handling the trials in the Middle East said last month the vaccine had been administered to more than 31,000 people across the four countries.
Several ministers and senior officials have already received the vaccine in both the UAE and Bahrain, including Bahrain’s crown prince.
On Tuesday Prime Minister and Vice-President of the UAE and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum tweeted a picture of him receiving a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The UAE and Bahrain have pursued ties with China, seeking capital and technology to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbon revenues. However, key ally the United States has warned Gulf states to proceed with caution and to consider their relationship with Washington.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai; additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Writing by Josephine Mason in London; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean