Home Asia Commentary: Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine Chinese companies are developing?

Commentary: Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine Chinese companies are developing?


LAUSANNE: For all its innovative prowess, China has generally lagged other countries in developing vaccines.

But that appears to be changing with the race for a coronavirus vaccine, with Chinese companies potentially even at the forefront.



As often with China, the question is: Who are we dealing with? Who are the main vaccine developers?

How far are they in developing a vaccine? What is their approach?

What is the connection to the Chinese state? And what is the outlook if China comes up with the vaccine first?

Of the 32 vaccines that are in human trials around the world, a larger number are from Chinese companies than might have been expected. The three leading players are Sinovac, CanSino Biologics and Sinopharm.




Sinovac is a NASDAQ-listed company based in Beijing, founded in 2001. It is what we call a specialised vaccine developer and has, for instance, developed vaccines for hepatitis A and B, seasonal influenza, swine flu and avian flu.

LISTEN: The COVID-19 vaccine will be the biggest product launch in history. Can we pull it off?

READ: Commentary: China's new digital currency is a bit of hot air

It was the first company worldwide to get approval for a swine flu vaccine in 2009. It is also still the only supplier of an avian flu vaccine. Sinovacs coronavirus vaccine has entered stage three clinical trials in Brazil and Indonesia, and the company has already prepared a plant for mass vaccine manufacturing in Beijing.

CanSino, the underdog of the three, was founded in 2009 in Tianjin, north-eastern China, by a group of senior professionals from various multinationals.

Sao Paulo State Governor Joao Doria displays the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech during its trials in Brazil AFP/Nelson ALMEIDA

For instance, Dr Xuefeng Yu, a Canadian passport holder, was global head of development for bacterial vaccines at French pharmaceuticals company Sanofi Pasteur. The company listed in Hong Kong in March 2019 and in Shanghai in August 2020.

In 2014, CanSino became the third pharmaceuticals company to develop a vaccine for Ebola. In July 2020, its coronavirus vaccine entered stage three clinical trials, and in August its patent was formally approved in China. The clinical trials are being done in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and with soldiers from Chinas Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).

READ: Commentary: Making sense of shifting goalposts in public policy and the science of COVID-19

READ: Commentary: We need to have the right conversations about COVID-19

Sinopharm is owned by the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of The State Council (SASAC): The closest a company can get to being part of the central government, and the only pharmaceutical company of that sort in China.

Sinopharm has 150,000 employees and over 1,500 subsidiaries, including six listed companies. Vaccine development is done through two institutes of Sinopharm subsidiary China National Biotec Group: The Beijing Biological Institute and Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.

The latter was the first institute worldwide to enter clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine in April. It became the first to enter stage three trials in June in the UAE, and more recently in Peru, Morocco and Argentina.

It is also conducting trials with employees of petroleum conglomerate PetroChina. The chairman of Sinopharm, Liu Jingzhen, recently predicted that the vaccine would be on the market by December 2020.


Chinese vaccine developers have faced an unusual problem: Too few people are infected with coronavirus in their home country. This is one of the reasons they have been performing clinical trials all over the world, but especially in friendly countries.

Impatient for results, China has also been bypassing its own regulatory process, which helps explain the trials on soldiers and petroleum workers.

FILE PHOTO: A technician works at a manufacturing facility of Chinese vaccine maker CanSino Biologics in Tianjin, China November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Especially in the current climate, many people in the west would probably assume that these companies are all fronts for the Chinese state, but it is not that simple.

True, there is no medical company closer to the government than Sinopharm, but Sinovac was founded as a private enterprise by entrepreneur and leading vaccine scientist Weidong Yin.

The largest shareholder with 15 per cent is SAIF Capital Partners, a major Hong-Kong-based venture capital firm that was spun out of Japans Softbank. The Chinese state does have an indirect interest in Sinovac through Peking University, which owns an entity called SinoBioWay that has a 13 per cent stake in the pharmaceuticals company.

READ: Commentary: Manufacturing and distributing a COVID-19 vaccine could take years

READ: Commentary: Road to recovery post-coronavirus paved with green bricks

The rest of the company belongs to a large variety of small private shareholders and the founder, with the management team still holding over 10 per cent.

CanSino, meanwhile, has strong links with the Institute of Biology at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, an arm of the PLA, through a collaboration with Dr Chen Wei, who was pivotal in developing Read More – Source

[contf] [contfnew]

channel news asia

[contfnewc] [contfnewc]