A Chinese company says its vaccine will be ready by December—but it won’t be cheap

August 22, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC

Sinopharm, a state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company, says that its COVID-19 vaccine will reach market by December, but its likely price tag is much higher than any put forward for a coronavirus vaccine so far.

“It is expected to cost a few hundred yuan for a shot, and for two shots it should be less than 1000 yuan ($145),” Sinopharm CEO Liu Jingzhen, told a Chinese newspaper this week.

Liu said that the cost is “not very high,” but, in fact, it’s significantly more expensive than the projected prices of its peers.

Moderna, the American vaccine maker, says it will charge $32 to $37 per dose of its vaccine. Johnson & Johnson, the American pharmaceutical company, recently struck a deal with the U.S. government that suggests its vaccine will cost around $10 per shot.Pfizer, the U.S. pharmaceutical firm, confirmed in July that it would set a price ceiling of $20 per dose of its potential vaccine. In the U.K., AstraZeneca, the British pharmaceutical company, and Oxford University may offer their vaccine candidate for as low as $3 per injection.

Johnson & Johnson has said that it favors a single shot approach, but—like Sinopharm, Moderna, Pfizer, and Oxford—it will likely administer its vaccines in two doses. In the two-shot approach, a second, booster jab of the vaccine is administered to patients roughly four weeks after the first to increase the vaccine’s effectiveness.

In the newspaper interview, Liu did not explain how Sinopharm arrived at its price point, and the company declined Fortune’s request for comment. Liu suggested, however, that widespread distribution of the vaccine may not be necessary in China given that the country has largely stopped the spread of the disease.

“Not all of China’s 1.4 billion people will need to be injected,” he told the newspaper, saying that a vaccine may only be needed for students and office workers living in densely populated cities, but not necessary for people living in rural areas.

That view conflicts with the advice of other experts, who want as many people as possible to receive a coronavirus vaccine, as soon as one is proven safe and effective.

GAVI, an organization that provides vaccines to underserved populations, says that at least 60% of the world’s population will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and begin stamping out COVID-19. “You can’t go back to your normal trade, travel or movement of people” unless everyone gets vaccinated, GAVI CEO Seth Berkley recently told the BBC. “It’s really important to have that mindset: we’re not safe, unless everybody is safe.”

Liu said in the interview that Sinopharm has invested nearly $300 million in building two new vaccine production workshops; the more it charges for its vaccine the more of that investment it might recover. He said the facilities, one in Beijing and one in Wuhan, will be capable of producing a combined 220 million doses per year.

The high price of the Sinopharm vaccine sparked worries on Chinese social media. A survey on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo asked users whether they could afford Sinopharm’s $145 price point; more than 50% of the 5,000 respondents said they could not, according to the state-run news outlet the Global Times.

It’s unclear to what extent the Chinese government may subsidize vaccine costs or provide free or discounted rates to medical and other essential workers. Chinese media reported in late July that Sinopharm offered to immediately inoculate frontline medical workers vaccine in China for free. Liu says that he has also been injected with the vaccine.

In the interview, Liu said that he expects one dose of Sinopharm’s vaccine to be 97% effective in producing an immune response, a rate that would climb to close to 100% once a second dose is administered 28 days later.

Researchers, however, say it is still too early to tell if Sinopharm’s candidate will be successful.

On Aug. 13, Sinopharm published the results of its phase II trials that were conducted in China.

“We’re going to need more data” to see if the vaccine produces a robust immune response, Derek Lowe, vaccine expert and pharmaceutical industry veteran, wrote about Sinopharm’s phase II study for his blog on Science Translational Medicine.

Sinopharm launched phase III trials of the vaccine on 15,000 volunteers in the United Arab Emirates in July. The large-scale stage of testing is intended to evaluate the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. The company has reportedly also made agreements to conduct similar trials in Peru, Morocco, Brazil, and Pakistan.

To find out if the vaccine actually offers protection, Lowe writes, we need to “stay tuned” for results of these trials.