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UAE and Bahrain offer Sinopharm coronavirus booster shots amid questions on Chinese vaccine efficacy

The Sinopharm vaccine in use in Indonesia. (Mast Irham/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The United Arab Emirates said on Tuesday that it will offer an additional dose of the Chinese-developed Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine to people who have already received two shots of the vaccine more than six months ago. The decision marks a significant expansion in the UAE’s booster shot program, which is among the first in the world.

The country had previously administered a third Sinopharm shot to some people whose immune systems did not create enough antibodies after vaccination. In March, a top researcher at G42, an Abu Dhabi-based firm that held late-stage trials of the Sinopharm vaccine, said very few people would be likely to need the booster.

G42 didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

On Tuesday, Bahrain also said it would offer a third dose of the Sinopharm vaccine to groups including first responders, seniors and those with underlying health conditions, according to the kingdom’s state news agency.

The UAE Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority called the booster program part of the country’s “proactive strategy to provide maximum protection for society.” The Middle Eastern country, which will offer seniors and those with chronic illness priority access to the booster shot, reported just 1,270 new infections on Tuesday, sharply down from a late January peak.

More than 73 percent of adults have been vaccinated in the UAE, according to authorities, one of the highest rates in the world. The country has relied heavily on the Sinopharm vaccine, which it has agreed to manufacture domestically, since its rollout late last year. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, was one of the first Emiratis to receive the Sinopharm vaccine.

Earlier this month, the Sinopharm vaccine became the first Chinese-made vaccine for an infectious disease to receive emergency-use approval from the World Health Organization. The move was seen as a major boost to China’s vaccine diplomacy efforts. The Sinopharm shot is used in over two dozen countries, including Hungary and Indonesia. Studies have suggested the vaccine has an efficacy rate of 79 percent against symptomatic infection.

But questions have been raised about how much protection the vaccine provides in “real-world settings” after a spike of infections in the Seychelles, which has been largely vaccinated with Sinopharm shots donated by the UAE. The East African archipelago nation reintroduced social distancing measures earlier this month after being hit by another wave of the pandemic.

The UAE’s move comes amid debate by infectious-disease doctors as to whether people who received U.S.-approved vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna will require boosters. Top executives at both drug companies have said that they expect additional shots could be needed and Moderna recently reported positive results from a study of a booster shot.

Researchers have said the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines offer protection for at least six months. Experts at the WHO and Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have questioned the need for additional shots.

“It’s not going to be a decision that’s going to made by a pharmaceutical company,” Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in April. He added it would only become clear by late summer if booster shots will be needed.

Separately on Tuesday, the UAE also said it had approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children between the ages of 12 and 15.