Beijing has sought to play down suggestions that poor diplomatic ties with Ottawa scuttled a coronavirus vaccine trial in Canada by Chinese pharmaceutical CanSino Biologics.
Asked on Thursday about the scrapping of the trial after months of delays, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said only that “the Chinese government supports Chinese companies cooperating with other countries according to law”.
He did not elaborate on why the vaccines, which were supposed to be shipped to Canada for a phase one clinical trial, were held up by Chinese customs for weeks.
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Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) was quoted by Canadian media as saying on Wednesday that it had ended the cooperation.
The council said that since the signing of the agreement with CanSino in May, China had changed the process of shipping vaccines to other countries.
“The process is not clear to the NRC, but CanSino does not have the authority to ship the vaccine at this time,” the council was quoted as saying.
“Due to the delay in the shipment of the vaccine doses to Canada, the NRC has since moved on to focus our team and facilities on other partners and Covid-19 priorities.”
However, CanSino has denied that cooperation has ended.
“Up to the date of this announcement, the collaboration between the National Research Council of Canada and the company has not been terminated,” CanSino said in a filing late on Thursday to Hong Kong’s stock exchange.
“None of the management of the company has accepted any interview in relation to the clinical trials for Ad5-nCoV in Canada in the recent period.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, CanSino chairman and chief executive Xuefeng Yu blamed bureaucratic indecision for the shipment delays.
Some divisions of the Chinese government were not clear on whether the vaccine should “go to global trials or how to handle it”, Yu was quoted as saying. The best timing for trials in Canada had passed, he said.
The trials were originally scheduled to start in late May but in early July, it was revealed that the vaccines had been held up by Chinese customs, with Chinese authorities offering no explanation.
According to the report, Yu would not be drawn on whether the deal collapsed because of diplomatic tensions between China and Canada, saying that he “cannot comment too much about politics”.
The vaccine Ad5-nCoV was developed by a team led by top Chinese military virologist Chen Wei and used a cell line modified by the NRC. The cell line was provided by Canada to CanSino to develop an Ebola vaccine in 2014.
After the customs hold-up came to light, CanSino said it was working with Russia, Brazil, Chile and Saudi Arabia on phase three trials, with plans to recruit 40,000 volunteers.
The company has announced in the past two weeks that it has struck deals to carry out the final phase of clinical trials in Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Relations between Beijing and Ottawa have been increasingly bitter since late 2018, with the detention of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver followed by the detention of two Canadian nationals by China.
The issue was raised this week when the foreign ministers of the two countries crossed paths in Rome. During the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanded that Canada release Meng while his Canadian counterpart, Francois-Philippe Champagne, said that the cases of former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor “remain a top priority for the government of Canada”.
CanSino is one of the three Chinese pharmaceutical firms with vaccine candidates entering the final phase of clinical trials. State-owned Sinopharm and privately owned Sinovac have clinical trials under way in various countries in the Middle East and Latin America.
Additional reporting by Eric Ng
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This article Coronavirus: did diplomatic tensions scuttle China-Canada vaccine trial? first appeared on South China Morning Post