Zhang Yuntao, a senior executive of a pharmaceutical company which is developing two Covid-19 vaccines, seems a very popular man even among strangers. When attending industry seminars, people vie to take photos with him, add him on WeChat and ask if they or their loved ones can have an injection.
The vaccines developed by Zhang’s company, China National Biotec Group (CNBG), are still being tested for safety and efficacy in human trials, but have been taken by about 350,000 people in China under an emergency use scheme. Contrary to the caution shown in the West over use of vaccines before their regulatory approval, it is much sought after.
But getting vaccines – if approved – to people clamouring for them around the world has hurdles to overcome, due in part to fragile relations between China and Western countries, most of all the US.
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Chinese pharmaceutical companies are enjoying unprecedented involvement in the global race to find Covid-19 vaccines – four of the 10 candidates in the final stage of human trials were developed by Chinese firms, rubbing shoulders with Western giants AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson – and huge sums are on the line.
With China no longer having enough local transmissions to stage trials itself, state-owned CNBG is conducting phase 3 trials involving more than 40,000 volunteers in about 10 countries in Asia, South America and Middle East, at a cost of thousands of US dollars per volunteer. Another Chinese company staging human trials overseas has forecast that it would cost US$1 billion in total.
“Our data is recognised and approved to allow clinical trials directly in foreign countries – a miracle in China’s history,” Zhang said.
But he added: “It has been very difficult to develop the vaccines, taking all the risks, withstanding attack and smearing by the US.”
The US has alleged that China is conducting espionage activities to try to steal information on American vaccine development, which China has denied.
CNBG had obtained approval to conduct a phase 3 trial in Australia, but “could not carry it out because of political reasons”, Zhang said. The Australian Department of Health declined to verify or comment on the claim, citing confidentiality reasons.
Relations between China and Australia have deteriorated sharply in recent months, with Beijing seeing Canberra as an ally of the US in trying to suppress China, and Australia viewing China as a threat to democracy and national security. In April, Australia lobbied world leaders for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, angering Beijing.
Zhang said countries still willing to support phase 3 trials of Chinese vaccines could benefit from access to the vaccines if they were approved.
“Cooperation for a mutual win is very important,” he said. “They backed us and we are willing to support them, for example in global production or distribution.”
Such cooperation on Covid-19 has been hoped for between China and the US despite their relations in general hitting the lowest point in decades – and there is a precedent for a health crisis bringing about such a breakthrough.
In 1966, smallpox was killing 2 million people and infecting a further 15 million each year when Dr Donald Henderson, an American epidemiologist with the US Communicable Disease Center, was appointed to lead an intensified World Health Organization (WHO) programme to eradicate it.
Henderson’s diplomatic skill built bridges with the US’ Cold War adversary the Soviet Union, which donated 1.5 billion smallpox vaccine doses to the programme and offered logistic support. The cooperation between bitter rivals helped to eradicate smallpox by 1980 – the first and only human infectious disease to be fully eliminated.
Four decades later, with the world again facing a deadly infectious disease, the willingness of the US and China to put aside their differences and work together to solve this century’s biggest public health crisis remains in question.
So far, neither country has joined Covax, a WHO scheme aiming to ensure equitable access internationally to Covid-19 vaccines. Cooperation that has been tangible has been at company level: for example, Chinese firm Advaccine Biotechnology in July began working with US company Inovio Pharmaceuticals to test an experimental vaccine INO-4800 in China, although the American regulator has halted a US trial while it queries an Inovio device used in the inoculation.
General Gustave Perna, who has led the US’ push for a vaccine, said in June he was willing to work with “any nation that offers cooperation or information relevant to developing vaccines”, but not China, which he considered hostile to American national security.
With worsening China-US relations and vaccines being seen as a political and diplomatic tool, competition rather than cooperation can be expected, analysts said.
Wang Yong, a professor of international relations at Peking University, said China’s promise to treat vaccines as a “global public good” put pressure on the US not to use them as a “strategic weapon”.
Scott Rosenstein, director of Eurasia Group’s global health practice, said victory in a race to distribute a vaccine and inoculate populations would nonetheless offer a strategic boost to whichever country achieved it, China included.
“China recently announced it will provide early access to Chinese vaccines in countries that are carrying out phase 3 trials of those vaccines,” Rosenstein said. “This is in line with China’s strong interest in using vaccine access as a diplomatic tool to strengthen existing alliances and build goodwill with countries in its sphere of influence.
“The motivation for this type of international engagement is at least partly driven by Beijing’s interest in countering early criticism of its outbreak response.”
Zhang of CNBG said his company was “keeping an open mind for any cooperation”, but Wang from Peking University believed cooperation with the US was out of reach in the present climate.
“I don’t think it is going to happen now, not with the current hawkish hardliners in power,” Wang said. “We’ll watch to see if anything changes after the US presidential election [on November 3].”
Yun Sun, a senior fellow at Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, said it was possible that little would change for China even if Democrat nominee Joe Biden were to unseat Republican incumbent Donald Trump as president.
“I think cooperation on vaccines will be very difficult and unlikely, unless there is a Biden administration,” Sun said. “But the US and many countries in the West still hold China partially responsible for the outbreak of the global pandemic. That is unlikely to change even with a change of administration.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- Why China’s bet on ‘analogue’ Covid-19 vaccines could pay off
- Coronavirus: Chinese firm signs deal to get access to promising Oxford University vaccine
This article Chinese firm finds hostility and smears add hurdles to Covid-19 vaccine race first appeared on South China Morning Post