Coronavirus pandemic

China's vaccine drive gains pace, empowers troubled industry

Engineers working on monkey kidney cells for an experimental Covid-19 vaccine at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing late last month. Private firm Sinovac Biotech and the Beijing Institute of Biological Products have potential vaccines in phase
Engineers working on monkey kidney cells for an experimental Covid-19 vaccine at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing late last month. Private firm Sinovac Biotech and the Beijing Institute of Biological Products have potential vaccines in phase one trials.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • China wants to beat the world in the race to find a coronavirus vaccine - and, by some measures, it is doing just that.

Desperate to protect its people and to deflect growing international criticism of how it handled the outbreak, it has slashed red tape and offered resources to drug firms. Four Chinese firms have started testing their vaccine candidates on humans, more than the United States and Britain combined.

China's leaders have empowered a vaccine industry that has long been mired in quality problems. Just two years ago, Chinese parents erupted in fury after discovering ineffective vaccines had been given to babies. But finding a vaccine is not enough. It must also win the trust of the public, who might be more inclined to choose a foreign-made vaccine over a Chinese one.

"The Chinese now do not have confidence in the vaccines produced in China," said Mr Ray Yip, former head of the Gates Foundation in China. "That's probably going to be the biggest headache."

The need is urgent, with more than 250,000 people dead from the disease globally.

China also wants to deflect accusations that its silencing of early warnings contributed to the pandemic. Developing a vaccine for the world would, in addition, burnish its standing as a global scientific and medical power.

So China has made its vaccine a national priority. One senior official said a vaccine for emergency use could be ready by September.

First-year medical student Huang Shiyue, 18, recently left her apartment in Wuhan for the first time in three months to visit a wellness centre an hour away. There, she offered up her arm in the name of science, saying: "If I can help and benefit people with one little move, then I think this is a very worthwhile thing."

The vaccine Ms Huang received is being developed by Tianjin-based CanSino Biologics. It was the first to enter phase two trials, which means it is ahead of the world's other vaccine candidates.

One other Chinese institution also has a candidate in phase two testing - the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. Private firm Sinovac Biotech and the Beijing Institute of Biological Products have potential vaccines in phase one trials.

The Wuhan institute was involved in a 2018 scandal in which defective vaccines were injected into hundreds of thousands of babies. The resulting scandal led to the firing of dozens of officials and pledges of an industry clean-up.

Sinovac Biotech had been involved in a bribery scandal. From 2002 to 2014, a court in Beijing said, the general manager of Sinovac Biotech gave China's deputy director in charge of drug evaluations nearly US$50,000 (S$71,000) to help the firm with drug approvals.

Still, the Chinese government has given the companies permission to accelerate trials. Regulators in the US and elsewhere have done the same for other firms.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2020, with the headline 'China's vaccine drive gains pace, empowers troubled industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe