BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Chinese government has donated Sinopharm vaccines to Brunei, the Ministry of Health (MoH) said Wednesday, although it did not disclose the number of doses.

“These contributions are on the basis of ‘berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjing’, a Malay proverb indicating working together during peace or hardship,” the ministry said in a statement.

The contribution underscores the “close bilateral cooperation” in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, MoH said, and is a reflection of the commitment by both countries to strengthen partnership to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between China and Brunei.

Brunei has yet to approve the emergency use of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, but the ministry said it is still reviewing its distribution plan as well as vaccines from other manufacturers.

Is the Sinopharm vaccine safe?

Sinopharm, a Chinese state-owned company, has developed two COVID-19 vaccines, which use inactivated virus particles to trigger the body’s immune response. A person is given two doses three weeks apart.

Phase III trials of the vaccine showed that it is 79% effective – lower than Pfizer and Moderna, but higher than Oxford-AstraZeneca.

Health minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar previously said more scientific data was needed to assess the efficacy and safety of vaccines from Sinopharm and Sinovac, the two leading Chinese drug companies.

“What we’ve seen so far is only the data released in the media. But in order to make a proper evaluation we need more data from the trial, including factors such as the age and gender of participants, as well as the proportion of participants that have chronic disease,” he said a fortnight ago.

While early Phase I and II data suggest the Chinese vaccines are safe, both Sinopharm and Sinovac have not published Phase III trial data in peer-reviewed medical journals or released much information about their vaccines beyond press releases.

Sinopharm’s vaccine has already been rolled out in China, Bahrain, UAE, Cambodia, Laos and Pakistan.

China wields vaccine diplomacy

Chinese ambassador Yu Hong (R) poses for a photo during a media appreciation dinner organised by the Chinese embassy on Feb 9, 2021. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

As rich Western nations hoard vaccine supplies, concern over vaccine disparity has deepened.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Brunei during his Southeast Asia swing last month, pledging to hand out more than a million vaccine doses across the region.

Beijing soon announced its plan to provide vaccine aid to 53 developing countries, including Brunei and its ASEAN neighbours Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.

In an interview with The Scoop on Tuesday, Chinese ambassador Yu Hong said China hopes to forge closer cooperation with Brunei on COVID-19 management, including vaccine deployment.

“We have very close cooperation with the Ministry of Health. At the same time, the ministry is very professional and they have their own set of procedures to follow.

“So it is up to the Ministry of Health to review or choose which vaccine [they want]. But China wishes to have this kind of cooperation with Brunei, as we have had with other countries.”

So far, MoH has procured the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to inoculate 20 percent of the population. Another 50 percent is expected to come via the COVAX initiative, which helps developing nations gain access to the vaccine, and through direct negotiations with drug-makers.

Brunei is aiming to inoculate at least 70 percent of its population beginning in the second quarter of this year.