Bahrain Urges Some Immunized with China's Sinopharm COVID Vaccine to Get Second Shot

Bahrain is urging some of its citizens immunized with two doses of China's Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine to get a second shot six months later. The Bahraini government recommends that residents over 50, those with weakened immune systems and obese individuals should get a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

"The Sinopharm vaccine is not immunogenic enough, and it appears that its impact is especially low on elderly recipients," said Dr. Olgica Djurkovic-Djakovic, who oversaw a study on the Sinopharm vaccine in Serbia, according to The Wall Street Journal. Citizens can register for booster shots of either the Pfizer of Sinopharm vaccines through the government's BeAware phone app.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gave emergency authorization to the Sinopharm vaccine in May, but there are concerns about its efficacy. China's top disease control official said in April that vaccines locally produced in China have low protection against COVID-19.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

COVID-19 Vaccination in Bahrain
A repurposed convention center, in which 6,000 people are participating in a large-scale trial of a Chinese-sponsored vaccine for the coronavirus, on August 27, 2020, in the Bahraini capital of Manama. Mazen Mahdi/AFP via Getty Images

The mixing of vaccines comes as the Mideast island nation struggles through its worst wave of the virus despite being one of the top countries in the world in per-capita inoculations.

Bahraini government and health officials, as well as its embassies abroad, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday from the AP. Officials at Sinopharm could not be immediately reached.

The Wall Street Journal in its Thursday edition quoted Waleed Khalifa al-Manea, Bahrain's undersecretary of health, as describing Sinopharm as providing a high degree of protection. But he acknowledged offering Pfizer to those with special needs, without explaining why the kingdom made that decision.

The two shots use different technologies. The Pfizer shots, a so-called "mRNA vaccine," contain a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spiked protein on the surface of the virus. The Sinopharm vaccine is an "inactivated" shot made by growing the whole virus in a lab and then killing it.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, both of which heavily relied on Sinopharm in their initial vaccination drives, announced in May that they'd offer a third shot of the Sinopharm vaccine amid concerns about an insufficient antibody response.

The WHO's emergency approval of Sinopharm in May is potentially paving the way for millions of doses to reach needy countries through the U.N.-backed COVAX vaccine program. A range of governments, including in Hungary, Pakistan, Serbia and the Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, already administer Sinopharm.

In March, an official from a state-linked Emirati company distributing Sinopharm set off a storm of confusion when he acknowledged on Dubai's state-owned radio that "a very small number" of residents had already received booster shots of Sinopharm. As vaccine recipients became worried about their antibody levels, authorities cautioned the public against mixing different coronavirus vaccines.

In April, the head of international cooperation at China National Biotec Group, which is a subsidiary of Sinopharm, described the UAE's use of booster shots as "not included in our clinical plan."

In the UAE, home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, some who earlier received Sinopharm have later gone back to be re-inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine as it became widely available across the federation of seven sheikhdoms.

The UAE and Bahrain rank among the world's top vaccinators on a per-capita basis. Yet Bahrain, home to some 1.6 million people, is in the throes of its worst wave yet of the virus, forcing the kingdom into a two-week lockdown.

Meanwhile, on Thursday sovereign wealth funds in Russia and Bahrain announced the island kingdom would begin producing the Sputnik V vaccine to supply demand across the Middle East and North Africa.

In Beirut, a senior World Bank official praised Lebanon's anti-pandemic program, despite what he said were problems in its early phase.

The international financing body took a big gamble on Lebanon, embroiled in political infighting and lacking a fully functioning government, said Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank's vice president for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Despite the problems in the beginning, today we see the project is going in the right direction," he said at a press conference.

The World Bank has been a major financier of Lebanon's coronavirus campaign, helping upgrade public hospitals' capacities and fast-tracking procurement of supplies. It has also financed the country's vaccination campaign, the first World Bank-financed operation to fund the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, to provide for over 2 million individuals.

Lebanon has successfully managed to curb the second surge in coronavirus infections that had overwhelmed the health sector since the start of the year. Health authorities imposed a series of lockdowns, and restrictions on public activities, while a vaccination campaign kicked off in February.

So far about 10 percent of the country's 6 million have been inoculated. Efforts are underway to ramp it up in recent weeks—including with walk-ins and marathons for specific age groups.

Since February 2020, Lebanon has recorded over 540,000 infections and over 7,700 deaths.

A week after vaccination began, the World Bank threatened to suspend financing for coronavirus vaccines in Lebanon after accusations that lawmakers were inoculated in parliament without prior approval. The violations were stopped after public scrutiny and a World Bank investigation.