Egypt becoming a test lab for coronavirus vaccines: Report

Covid-19 Vaccine Makers See Egypt as Crucial Launchpad, where Cairo offers platform to deliver vaccine to hundreds of millions of people across Middle East and Africa

Egypt is emerging as a critical proving ground for global powers seeking to export a coronavirus vaccine to the developing world, a Wall Street Journal report said.

Egypt’s population of nearly 100 million, vaccine-manufacturing capacity and strategic location have made it an appealing platform for Russian, Chinese and Western vaccine makers.

Chinese officials have said they want to make Egypt a hub for manufacturing vaccines for the African market, with a state-run drugmaker having launched a partnership with the country to conduct human trials. Meanwhile, a private Egyptian company has agreed to import tens of millions of vaccine doses in a deal with Russia’s sovereign-wealth fund.

Egypt has also been in talks to import millions of doses of the vaccine being developed by researchers at the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca PLC.

All of the deals are pending approval from Egypt’s regulators. The Health Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment on the vaccines.

China and Russia are pushing into other countries as well, including the United Arab Emirates. But Egypt’s size, location and experience in manufacturing vaccines have given the government leverage to bargain for the best prices from global suppliers, say public-health experts.

“There’s a kind of vaccine geopolitics,” said Dr. Jerome Kim, director of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul. “They’re doing exactly what the high-income countries are doing, except they don’t have the money to do it, so they’re negotiating.”

The Middle East’s most populous nation ramped up its vaccine-production capabilities after it faced an outbreak of H1N1 influenza 10 years ago. More recently, Egypt carried out a largely successful campaign to stamp out a hepatitis C epidemic through testing and treatment.

A team from the World Health Organization recently conducted an assessment of Egypt’s key vaccine plant on the outskirts of Cairo and concluded the factory would need only minimal modifications to produce coronavirus vaccines, according to Dr. Naeema Al-Gasser, a WHO representative in Egypt.

“This was immediate good news,” she said.

However, Egypt’s hospitals were strained by the coronavirus’s first wave, prompting the country’s doctors’ union to warn that its health-care system was on the brink of collapse. The government has reported more than 105,000 cases of the virus and 6,000 deaths. Testing has lagged behind other nations and government officials have said the true spread of the virus was likely 10 times greater than the reported rate. Though the official infection rate has dropped, officials fear a second wave in the coming months.

A successful vaccine rollout in Egypt would offer a political victory for the government, as the population grows more frustrated with the sputtering economy and stifled freedoms. Sporadic protests calling for the removal of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi have taken place throughout the country since September and nearly 1,000 protesters have been arrested, according to human-rights groups.

“For them, this is the thing that would enable them to reinforce their presence in the global community and our people,” said Ayman Sabae, a Cairo-based international public-health expert and the chief executive of Shamseya, a community-health nongovernmental organization.

Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines are expected to offer a cheaper and more readily available alternative to candidates developed in Europe and the U.S., despite concerns from experts about their effectiveness.

Egypt is now one of four Middle Eastern countries testing Chinese-made vaccine candidates, along with Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Jordan. In Egypt, the government is promoting the vaccine candidate from China’s state-owned Sinopharm with splashy TV ads to try to convince 6,000 volunteers to participate in a trial. Health Minister Hala Zayed even had herself injected with both doses of the two-step vaccine in September and October to raise awareness about the trial.

The deals could draw Egypt closer to China, the latest in a series of moves by both countries in recent years to deepen their relationship.

China is a major investor in military-led megaprojects at the heart of the Egyptian government’s economic agenda. Egypt has also joined Beijing’s globe-spanning Belt and Road initiative, an effort to expand Chinese influence through a vast infrastructure network.

China has cultivated closer ties with Middle Eastern governments by offering economic partnerships without raising critiques of human-rights violations.

Mr. Sisi, who came to power in a deadly military coup in 2013, has made frequent visits to Beijing in recent years and expressed admiration for China’s economic and political example.

“We received this opportunity from China but we are also open to discuss any opportunity with any other company,” said Awad Tag El-Din, a health adviser to Mr. Sisi.

He declined to comment further on Egypt’s approach to acquiring vaccines. Sinopharm didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Egypt’s efforts to promote the Chinese vaccine have raised concerns among the country’s doctors, who are already wary of the government’s approach to the pandemic after hundreds of health-care workers died from the virus in May and June.

Even though the vaccine hasn’t received regulatory approval, some Egyptian hospitals have urged health-care workers to get the Sinopharm vaccination, doctors said. A text message sent to doctors at two Cairo hospitals and seen by The Wall Street Journal cited orders from the health minister to make the shot available to all medics who desired it.

“It’s just propaganda to boost the morale of the people,” said a doctor assigned to a Covid-19 ward in a Cairo-area hospital, referring to the vaccination campaign.

Earlier this year, Egypt arrested at least nine doctors and other medics who had complained about a lack of testing and the government’s failure to take basic precautions to protect front-line workers in hospitals.

Russia is playing catch-up to China in Egypt. Its sovereign-wealth fund signed a deal with a private Egyptian company in late September to distribute 25 million doses of Russia’s “Sputnik V” vaccine.

A spokesman for the fund declined to comment further on the deal, noting that it, like the other foreign vaccine makers, was awaiting regulatory approval to distribute the vaccine in Egypt.