Sinovac reportedly halts COVID-19 vaccine production
Published: Jan 11, 2024 09:06 PM
Sinovac Photo: VCG

Sinovac Photo: VCG

Sinovac Biotech, one of the major inactivated vaccine manufactures in China, has reportedly halted COVID-19 vaccine production. The company did not confirm the news but industry observers believe it is a response to falling market demand. 

A circulated document from Sinovac Life Sciences Co., Ltd titled "Scheme for Suspending Performance Bonuses for COVID-19 Projects" indicated that the company completely halted their production of COVID-19 vaccines, with vaccine products no longer on sale, according to Jimu News, a media outlet affiliated with Hubei Daily. 

Sinovac Life Sciences is a subsidiary of Sinovac Biotech Ltd, one of the main inactivated vaccine manufactures in China. The document said that the company has decided to stop issuing performance bonuses for employees involved in the COVID-19 project starting from January 2024.

Citing one staff member from the product consultation hotline of Sinovac Biotech, Jimu News confirmed that the company's COVID-19 vaccine has indeed been discontinued. The report quoted the staff member as saying that if there is a need for the product, individuals would have to inquire with the local disease control center about its availability. 

The news ignited a storm of discussions online, some of which was linked to the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Sinovac Biotech has not responded to an interview request from the Global Times as of press time.

Sinovac Biotech's decision to suspend production of their COVID-19 vaccines is a response to what is believed to be falling market demand, and there is no need for undue alarm or exaggeration, Shao Yiming, an immunologist at the China CDC, also one of the chief medical advisors for the research and development of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, told the Global Times on Thursday. 

During the early phase of the COVID-19 epidemic, Sinovac was one of the few vaccine manufacturers approved for emergency use in the market. However, the country has now approved over 10 vaccine technologies, providing people with more choices. On top of that, the decline in demand for COVID-19 vaccinations, as a result of the strong immunity barrier established against the virus in the country, has also contributed to the suspension of production, Shao pointed out.

The Global Times learnt from several immunologists that citing Sinovac's business activity to suspend vaccines productions to question efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine and safety of inactivated vaccines makes no sense.

The suspension of producing COVID-19 vaccines was not isolated to Sinovac Biotech, according to media reports. For example, on July 19, 2023, Stemirna Therapeutics, which was among domestic vaccine manufacturers racing to develop mRNA in China, suspended its trial operation due to "lack of demand." All of this happened just two and a half years after it obtained clinical approval for the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine in January 2021.

The current dominant JN.1 strain possesses a high transmission capability and the ability to evade the immune system, which implies that the effectiveness of first-generation vaccines based on the original strain may diminish. Vaccine manufacturers are under significant pressure to keep pace with virus mutations and ensure the efficacy of vaccines. It is possible for the vaccine to become outdated even before it is commercially available, a Beijing-based immunologist who preferred to remain anonymous told the Global Times. 

In response to the fast mutation of the coronavirus, and the decrease in neutralizing antibody titers and protection rates against variant strains by the first-generation vaccines, at least five COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use in December, 2023, media reports showed. 

Meanwhile, the National Administration of Disease Control and Prevention had also strongly encouraged residents to receive jabs containing the XBB variant antigen component, especially for this year's autumn and winter seasons. 

The key purpose of COVID-19 vaccine is to protect against death and severe illness, not infection. Significant evidence has demonstrated inactivated vaccine has been approved effective and relatively less serious adverse reactions, Shao noted. "It is meaningless to attack inactivated vaccines."

A study of the University of Hong Kong in 2022 revealed that three shots of CoronaVac offered approximately 98 percent protection against death or severe illness in people aged 60 and above in the city.

The latest report by Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that throughout December 2023, a total of 3,779 locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 with valid genomic sequences were reported in the Chinese mainland. All cases were identified as Omicron variant, covering 72 evolutionary branches. The predominant variant was the XBB, with the top three being XBB.1.9 and its sub-branches, XBB.1.16 and its sub-branches, and XBB.1.22 and its sub-branches.

During the period, a total of 88 new severe cases and 11 deaths were reported. Among the deaths, two cases were caused by respiratory failure due to COVID-19 infection, and nine cases were due to the combination of underlying diseases and COVID-19 infection, according to China CDC.