Xi seeks victory over Trump in race for a COVID-19 vaccine
President Xi Jinping’s government is throwing the might of the Chinese state behind the country’s vaccine developers as the world races to make a shot against the coronavirus.
The sheer scale and speed of China’s effort ratchets up pressure on the U.S., where President Donald Trump’s administration has launched a program called Operation Warp Speed to accelerate vaccine research and development. Xi has promised to share any successful vaccine globally, and the Chinese president would wield immense geopolitical clout if his country produces one of the world’s first working shots.
In total, five vaccines developed by Chinese companies are being tested on humans, the most in any country. Beijing has mobilized its health authorities, drug regulators and research institutes to work around the clock with local companies. Communist Party leaders are overseeing some vaccine trials. Government and private equity money has gone into companies like Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech Ltd., which in May began the second stage of testing for its vaccine.
The Chinese efforts were on show late Friday, when an early-stage study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, showed that an experimental vaccine from China’s CanSino Biologics Inc. was safe and generated an immune response. It’s too early to predict the product’s eventual success, and investors beat down CanSino’s stock amid concerns it could have shortcomings.
China could still cross the finish line first, said Brad Loncar, chief executive officer of Loncar Investments in the U.S. and a CanSino investor. However, he shares the worries about the company’s experimental shot.
“Whether this will be a strong vaccine that offers full protection, that’s another story,” he said.
The speedy publication in an international journal showed the seriousness of the Chinese efforts. China is also pursuing vaccine candidates using more traditional technologies that are more amenable to mass production.
The Asian country faces stiff competition in the U.K. and U.S., and it remains difficult to assess which experimental products will work and cross the line first. But the nations with the earliest successful vaccines would gain an important weapon at a time when governments are attempting to emerge out of lockdowns that have fueled severe economic contractions. The virus that caused Covid-19 has already killed about 350,000 worldwide.
China would use any vaccine to show it is a responsible stakeholder in global health, said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor specializing in public health at the City University of Hong Kong. “The question that will then arise is to what extent their holding of the vaccine is used for geopolitical purposes, specifically with the United States.”
Xi is attempting to burnish his nation’s image after global criticism about its early handling of the virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. He has vowed that the country’s vaccines, once approved for use, will become a global public good and accessible to other developing countries. In doing so, he’s presented a contrast with Trump, who has threatened to cut off funding to the World Health Organization in a move that could disrupt vaccination and other public health initiatives in poor countries.
While China has boosted its scientific prowess in recent years, it has yet to produce a novel blockbuster drug or vaccine. Its vaccine industry has in past years also been tarnished by a series of scandals involving sub-par production and safety incidents. China’s National Medical Products Administration, the nation’s drug regulator, didn’t immediately comment.
In April, Gao Fu, director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in an interview with state-run CCTV that the country could have a vaccine ready for emergency use by September and more broadly available for healthy people as soon as early next year.
Globally, data from a slew of companies show how much work remains to be done to produce a working vaccine before companies anywhere in the world can declare victory.
In the U.S., Moderna Inc. has announced early readouts of its Phase I clinical trials, indicating that some of those getting its shot have generated neutralizing antibodies that could potentially prevent infections. Still, after an initial rally its stock has fallen on concerns that the publicly available data isn’t enough to draw conclusions about the vaccine’s efficacy.
Meanwhile, AstraZeneca Plc received more than $1 billion in U.S. government funding to develop a Covid-19 vaccine candidate from the University of Oxford, and said it has supply agreements for 400 million doses. The Oxford shot is one of the world’s fastest-moving, and AstraZeneca has said it expects to have doses ready as soon as September.
Still, a former Harvard University research scientist, William Haseltine, has said in a blog that results of an animal test of the Oxford vaccine were weaker than those of a vaccine being developed by Sinovac. The Oxford researchers say the comparison isn’t suitable for studies carried out with different types of vaccines given in varying doses in monkeys with different levels of infection.
CanSino makes its vaccine using a genetically modified cold-causing virus to carry the genetic material of the novel coronavirus, similar to the approach employed by Oxford.
The research on the CanSino vaccine was conducted in Wuhan and the company has teamed up with Chen Wei, a prominent military researcher. CanSino previously worked with Chen on an Ebola vaccine that was approved for emergency use in 2017.
While the results in the Lancet study represent a milestone, they should be interpreted cautiously, Chen said in the report. “The challenges in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine are unprecedented, and the ability to trigger these immune responses does not necessarily indicate that the vaccine will protect humans from Covid-19.” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Sam Fazeli said in a research note that the study on the CanSino vaccine was “promising, but no cause for celebration.” The data showed shortcomings, including the possibility of older patients having a lower response to the vaccine, he said.
Another potential obstacle for China is the final stage of testing, which needs to be carried out in places where the virus is spreading, according to Loncar, the fund manager. China has mostly quelled its outbreak, and the few clusters that have emerged may not be large enough for late-stage trials.
Several other Chinese companies, including Sinovac and China National Biotec Group Co., have candidates in human trials that employ a killed version of the novel coronavirus that can still an trigger immune response. Such inactivated vaccines have been developed for many years to protect populations from diseases including polio and hepatitis.
Sinovac’s research and development subsidiary has received $15 million from private equity firms Advantech Capital and Vivo Capital to fund the development of the inactivated vaccine, dubbed CoronaVac. The company has also been assigned a large factory to produce its coronavirus vaccine.
While inactivated vaccines may be slower to develop initially, their familiar path to mass production might allow them to overtake shots made by newer, cutting-edge approaches.
“Those vaccines don’t have manufacturing capability at a truly global scale yet,” Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations which funds vaccine development, said of newer technologies. The more traditional approach could be slower in getting to completion but could scale up more rapidly, he said. That could be particularly helpful to Xi’s goal of distributing China’s vaccine worldwide.