The Chinese government has granted Emergency Use Authorization for a new vaccine targeting the COVID-19 XBB.1.5 subvariant, making China the first country in the world to approve a vaccine targeted at this variant.
Coviccine Trivalent XBB.1.5, which was developed by scientists at WestVac Biopharma and West China Medical Center (Sichuan University), reportedly has 93.28% protective efficacy against the subvariant. Efficacy describes how well the vaccine protects against disease under highly controlled clinical trial conditions, but its outcome usually varies when deployed in the real population.
The emergency approval comes weeks after a WHO advisory group announced that COVID booster shots should now be updated to produce antibodies against the XBB variants and not the original COVID variant, which no longer circulates in humans.
XBB.1.5, which is a highly infectious subvariant of omicron, led to China’s first major re-infection since the government scrapped its controversial zero-COVID policy in December. The current surge is expected to peak at 65 million weekly infections by the end of June, according to data modelling by respiratory disease specialist Zhong Nanshan.
Nationalist newspaper The Global Times said the vaccine approval “highlight[s] China’s leading position in COVID-19 vaccine research and development”, but many commentators are still concerned about the accuracy of the Chinese authorities’ COVID data.
In its most direct criticism of China since the pandemic began, the WHO pointed to China’s narrow definition of COVID-related deaths as “underrepresent[ing] the true impact of the disease” earlier this year. Whilst there is no evidence that current XBB subvariants cause more severe symptoms than other omicron variants, complete data remains key to tracking this as new variants continue to emerge.