Singapore received 200,000 Sinovac doses; no 'coercion' or 'external influence' involved

Vials labelled
(Reuters file photo)

SINGAPORE — The delivery of the Chinese-made Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine to Singapore prior to an assessment by the authorities for its use here was based on a bilateral commercial contract, and did not involve any "coercion" or "influence by other bodies", said a top health official on Wednesday (24 March).

The Ministry of Health (MOH) director of medical services Kenneth Mak was responding to media queries on whether Singapore was unable to turn down the delivery of Sinovac's CoronaVac because it wanted to avoid upsetting the Chinese government.

The deliveries of all vaccines to Singapore from the various drugmakers were based on timeframes that had been planned for and committed to under the advanced purchasing agreements, said Associate Professor Mak during a COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce press conference, the first in two months.

Singapore had signed advanced purchasing agreements for three COVID-19 vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Sinovac late last year.

To date, only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been authorised for use in Singapore. Shipments of both vaccines arrived after they were approved by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) in December and February, respectively.

The first shipment of Sinovac's CoronaVac arrived last month. Health Minister and taskforce co-chair Gan Kim Yong revealed during the press conference that some 200,000 doses manufactured by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company had been delivered to Singapore.

Prof Mak explained that the HSA had designed a pandemic-specific approval framework to allow for vaccine data to be submitted in tranches to the authority. This had shortened the approval process and allowed the vaccines to be administered to residents in Singapore, he added, stressing that there was no compromise in the evaluation procedures.

"It so happened for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the data had been submitted in a timely fashion and it allowed the HSA to then grant approval...just before these vaccines arrived on our shores," said Prof Mak.

"Therefore, there's a perception that the approval came and the vaccines then were delivered in short order but in fact, this was based on a timeframe that already had been planned for," he added.

Unfortunately, Sinovac had not submitted a complete set of data necessary for the evaluation process, Prof Mak said.

Gan noted that one reason for accepting the delivery for the first lot of CoronaVac doses was to allow authorities to roll them out quickly once approval is given.

Education Minister and taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong said that authorities placed "some bets" with the advanced purchases as some vaccines "may not turn out to be effective", and that the agreements were to secure supplies early on for Singapore.

But Prof Mak stressed that authorities will not be using the Sinovac vaccine just yet because they want to assure Singaporeans that it has been thoroughly evaluated, and "deemed to be both effective and safe for use".

The HSA told Yahoo News Singapore on Tuesday that it is still evaluating CoronaVac and has requested more information from Beijing-based Sinovac to "assess if it can meet the required standards for quality, safety, and efficacy".

It also said that it is in talks with various companies including AstraZeneca on the submission plans for their COVID-19 vaccines.

When asked by a reporter if authorities were in consultation with the makers of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia, Prof Mak said Singapore's expert panel in charge of vaccine evaluation continues to look at various vaccine candidates.

"I'm not aware whether they have actually engaged in further discussions concerning the Russian vaccines, but I would not be surprised if they have had this on the radar as well," said Prof Mak. For now, there is no update about other vaccines that Singapore is considering procuring, he added.

When asked to comment on Hong Kong's decision to suspend the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine due to a batch with defective packaging, Prof Mak said the local authorities stringently check every shipment of vaccine that arrives in Singapore.

In cases where there might have been some minor variation in temperature settings "just towards the extremes of the acceptable range", the specific shipment would be quarantined, pending further investigations jointly conducted with the relevant manufacturer, he added.

"And each setting when we have seen that, we have actually been assured that the vaccines still remain of high quality and good for use, and we have not, therefore, had any problems with the vaccine shipments to Singapore to date," said Prof Mak.

As of Tuesday, around 1,109,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in Singapore.

Over 799,000 people have received at least one dose, out of whom around 310,000 have received their second doses and completed their full vaccination regimen.

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