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Inside the Chinese companies vying to produce the world’s first coronavirus vaccine

Scientist working at Sinopharm.
China could be in pole position to develop a vaccine. EPA

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.

The companies’ credentials

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.

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. Sinovac’s 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.

Woman walking past the Sinovac headquarters in Beijing.
Sinovac headquarters in Beijing. EPA

CanSino, the underdog of the three, was founded in 2009 in Tianjin, north-eastern China, by a group of senior professionals from various multinationals. 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 China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

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.

The Chinese approach

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.

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

Map of China next to a COVID virus
The Chinese state has only indirect involvement in some of the leading vaccine companies. Ink Drop

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 CanSino’s Ebola vaccine, and probably explains CanSino’s COVID-19 vaccine trial on soldiers.

Yet in terms of company ownership, there is no link with the state. CanSino is mainly owned by the founding team and venture capital firms. Interestingly, the name “CanSino” is related to the fact that the founders have lived in Canada for a long time. Canada is also the first country to have ordered vaccines from CanSino, and the only European or North American country to have shown an interest in a Chinese vaccine.

The order of priority

If China does produce the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, what happens next? The Chinese people will presumably be the top priority for inoculation. After that, the countries that are partners in China’s Belt and Road economic initiative are likely to be next in line – especially those that have helped with clinical trials.

Further down the line might be countries that have been less vocal in the geopolitical war between the US and China, such as France, Germany and Switzerland. But who knows: China has been generous – and political – in providing face masks and ventilator machines to critics as well.

Finally, note that the Chinese don’t solely control all their efforts to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. Fosun Pharma is partnering with Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech in another vaccine initiative – the one Chinese player in an international joint venture. Fosun is also a shareholder in Oxford Science Innovation, which is invested in VacciTech, the company collaborating on the hotly tipped AstraZeneca vaccine. More interesting still, Huawei and Tencent are also investors in VacciTech. Clearly, it looks like the Chinese are hedging their bets.

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