China says it has given “conditional” approval for Pfizer’s COVID-19 drug Paxlovid to treat adults with mild to moderate illness and a high risk of developing severe disease.
The drug has so far been authorised in about 40 countries, while the European Union has permitted member states to use it before formal approval as an emergency measure against the rapidly spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.
“This is an important milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” a Pfizer representative said in a statement, without providing information about procurement.
Unlike COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer says that preliminary studies show that Paxlovid does not target the ever-evolving spike protein the coronavirus uses to invade cells, meaning it should theoretically be more variant-proof.
China’s National Medical Products Administration on Saturday said further research on the drug needed to be undertaken and submitted to the regulator.
Beijing has not yet approved any foreign-made coronavirus vaccines.
Lab tests have shown Omicron patients jabbed with the Chinese-produced Sinovac vaccine experience larger drops in antibody levels than those given the Pfizer version.
Earlier this week, Pfizer, whose vaccine developed with Germany’s BioNTech was the first approved in the United States, forecast more than $50bn in 2022 sales for its coronavirus jab and therapeutic treatment.
The company expects to make 120 million treatment courses of Paxlovid, with executives describing ongoing contract talks with about 100 governments.
China has yet to approve any COVID-19 vaccines developed by foreign drugmakers but has vaccinated 87.1 percent of its entire population by February 7 using several domestically developed shots.
Beijing’s conditional approval of the pill comes as China – where the coronavirus first emerged in late 2019 – has slowed new cases to a trickle with a strict “zero-COVID” strategy of targeted lockdowns, travel restrictions and lengthy quarantines.
The country has kept its daily number of new COVID-19 patients with confirmed symptoms to below 250, and sometimes fewer than 10, in the past year.
The number is small for its 1.4 billion population and by global standards, thanks to China’s approach of quickly containing any local flare-ups as soon as possible and its weeks-long quarantine requirement for most travellers arriving from abroad.
All 40 of China’s new domestic cases on Saturday occurred in just two cities, according to the National Health Commission.
One of them, the southern city of Baise – a major aluminium producer – went into lockdown this week amid a spike in infections, sending global prices for the metal to a 14-year high.
The other cases were detected in the northeastern coastal city of Huludao, prompting authorities to suspend cross-provincial tourism in the surrounding province of Liaoning, state broadcaster CCTV reported on Saturday.
The country’s uncompromising approach to the pandemic has led it to hold the ongoing Winter Olympics in a so-called closed loop, preventing participants from coming into contact with the wider population.
Organisers on Saturday announced eight new cases related to the games, including four athletes and team officials.
More than 400 Olympics-related cases have been confirmed so far, the organisers said in a statement.