MANILA — Chinese companies Sinovac and Sinopharm have been making headlines lately because of their respective COVID-19 vaccines.
And while they’re both leading Chinese vaccine makers and their names sound alike — beginning with the same Latin-derived prefix sino used to refer to China — they are different from each other.
Filipinos first heard about both companies mid-year when the government revealed that it approved collaborations with other countries for vaccine clinical trials.
Both have also consistently been on the top of the list of vaccine frontrunners the World Health Organization has been monitoring. As the country to be the first to detect the COVID-19 virus, China’s biopharmaceutical companies have been able to get ahead of the vaccine race.
However, both Sinovac and Sinopharm have also faced controversy — Sinovac for its bribery case and Sinopharm for supposedly being illegally used by the Presidential Security Group (PSG) of President Rodrigo Duterte.
So besides that, how does one tell the two companies apart? Here’s how they’re different:
Sinopharm or the China National Pharmaceutical Group Corp. is a state-owned enterprise in China. According to its website (reference: https://www.sinopharm.com/en/1398.html), the healthcare group has 128,000 employees and over 1,100 subsidiaries. It claims to be the world’s 6th largest vaccine manufacturer, producing all vaccines for China’s National Vaccination Program. Besides developing vaccines, it also distributes drugs and medical devices.
On the other hand, Sinovac is a private firm that has developed vaccines for influenza and hepatitis. According to a Time article (reference: https://time.com/5872081/sinovac-covid19-coronavirus-vaccine-coronavac/), Sinovac was the only vaccine developer to reach Phase 1 clinical trials during the SARS outbreak in 2002 to 2003. It was that work that allowed the company to get a head start on their COVID-19 vaccine.
Both Sinopharm and Sinovac are working on vaccines using the inactivated or killed COVID-19 virus. Inactivated virus vaccines have long been used for inoculation. While other companies such as Moderna and Pfizer are using more modern technologies such as RNA vaccines, inactivated virus vaccines are tried and tested. However, it is said to be more difficult to manufacture, among other limitations.
Sinopharm has two vaccines in development, one developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and another by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products. Both the Wuhan and the Beijing vaccines use the inactivated virus cultivated in vero cells or kidney epithelial cells from the African Green Monkey.
Sinopharm announced on Wednesday that its Beijing vaccine was 79% effective.
Meanwhile, Sinovac previously said its vaccine was 50% effective, which the Department of Science and Technology said was “acceptable.”
Although using an inactivated virus vaccine has limitations, one benefit for developing countries is that it does not require very low temperatures for storage.
Recently, both companies figured in controversies. Sinovac’s bribery case several years ago was mentioned in a Washington Post article.
The report revealed that Sinovac CEO admitted to paying a Chinese official to expedite the company’s vaccine certifications. The CEO argued that he could not turn down the official who asked for the bribe money.
The Philippines’ Department of Health assured Filipinos that such concerns will also be tackled by the ethics review board while the Food and Drug Administration said it will not tolerate corruption.
Meanwhile, Sinopharm is said to be the vaccine used by the PSG despite the fact that no vaccine has been given regulatory approval in the Philippines.
Under the FDA law, the importation, sale and administering of unregistered vaccines should result in a penalty of a fine or imprisonment but health officials say they do not have information yet to hold anyone accountable.
Both Sinopharm and Sinovac have been approved for limited use in China. Sinopharm’s vaccines are also being used in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (Beijing vaccine).
Currently, Sinovac is still pursuing its application for clinical trials in the Philippines. As part of the company’s Phase 3 trials, Filipinos will be able to see if the vaccine is safe and effective.
The Food and Drug Administration said this week that Sinovac made changes to the study protocol and once it is finalized and all documents are submitted, it may get clearance already.
On the other hand, Sinopharm called off its plans to run clinical trials in the country back in October.
Although the two companies have yet to apply for emergency use of its vaccines in the Philippines, government officials have repeatedly talked about procuring from them.