ISLAMABAD – Pakistan, one of China’s closest allies, has struggled to find volunteers for its part of the multinational Phase 3 clinical trial of China’s vaccine against the new coronavirus.
“Hospitals … have faced difficulties in recruiting volunteers for the trial because of a lot of misinformation, especially on social media,” a senior official at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a government-run research body, told Nikkei Asia in a statement. anonymous terms.
In September, Pakistan approved the final phase of clinical trials for the single-dose vaccine candidate Ad5-nCoV, developed by CanSino Biologics, a Chinese vaccine company based in Tianjin, and the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, a Chinese military-backed research body. . In return, China will supply a COVID-19 vaccine to Pakistan as a priority.
For the Ad5-nCoV Phase 3 trial, scheduled for completion in January 2022, nearly 40,000 volunteers are expected to participate from Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Pakistan.
Islamabad, which is economically close to Beijing and has $ 50 billion in infrastructure projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has selected five hospitals in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore for clinical trials, in which 8,000 to 10,000 people are expected to take part. Pakistan has also received massive Chinese medical and financial assistance since the coronavirus outbreak.
The NIH official said that the difficulty of gathering experimental volunteers was not a unique phenomenon in Pakistan. “Globally, a lot of people don’t trust certain vaccines, or new ones, which they might think were not tested adequately,” the official said.
According to the World Health Organization, 47 vaccine candidates are being clinically evaluated as of November 5, of which 11 – including Ad5-nCoV – are in Phase 3 trials.
Pakistan’s Phase 3 trial is a first for any vaccine. Asking ordinary people to volunteer even for a small phase of vaccine trials was previously rare in a country of 220 million people, leaving health authorities facing the challenge of vaccine doubt.
The government has not officially released the number of volunteers who have registered so far. However, the Indus Hospital (TIH) in Karachi was one of five hospitals selected for the trial – saying about 500 had volunteered there since October 13, although the target was 2,000.
TIH official Fawad bin Rashid told the Nikkei that people have misconceptions about vaccine trials, but “the number of people willing to volunteer for the tests has gradually increased, and hopefully that target can be achieved.”
The campaign against foreign vaccines is nothing new in Pakistan.
The country has grappled with disinformation surrounding long-standing vaccines, particularly for polio. Many parents reject the polio vaccine for their children, believing it is poisonous or part of a US plot to sterilize children in Islamic countries, making Pakistan the world’s last polio virus refuge in the world, along with neighboring Afghanistan.
Propaganda and conspiracy theories about the corona virus have become widespread. A survey conducted in October by Gallup Pakistan showed that 55% of Pakistanis are unsure if the virus is real and 46% consider it part of a conspiracy.
Videos of Kaukab cleric Noorani Okarvi accusing doctors of killing coronavirus patients are widespread on social media. He also emphasized that the COVID-19 vaccine would include a microchip that would allow Jews to control people’s minds.
Other theories include: the government gets more foreign funding if more people test positive; Pakistanis have natural immunity, keeping mortality relatively low; and this disease is more dangerous for Westerners than for South Asians.
However, some people opposed the disinformation and took part in the trials in hopes of ending the pandemic that has so far killed more than 1.2 million worldwide. Rashid, a TIH officer, gave an example of a taxi driver who registered and said that Islam teaches us to serve humanity.
Unlike the US and Europe, where companies or clinical trial sponsors run awareness campaigns and advertisements to enroll volunteers, clinical trials for the coronavirus vaccine are a less well-known affair in Pakistan.
The government and doctors have started efforts to address the disinformation of COVID-19 by involving the media and scholars. On Tuesday, the government published a front-page advertisement in the newspaper urging people to volunteer for trials.
Daily new coronavirus cases in Pakistan peaked at more than 6,000 in June before falling sharply. However, a new wave has begun, with 1,376 new cases and 30 deaths confirmed as of Friday, bringing the cumulative number of cases to 340,251 and deaths to 6,932.