Researchers are involved in what is becoming a nationalistic race to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Image: Facebook

An upstart Chinese drugmaker is trialling a potential Covid-19 vaccine. CanSino Bio, a once little-known pharmaceutical firm, has emerged as a frontrunner, as China goes all out in the global race to find acquired immunity to the acute respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that first emerged in the country at the end of last year.

CanSino Bio aims to kickstart mass production once the third-stage trial is finished, with its plant aiming to churn out 100-200 million vaccines by early 2021 before a new round of outbreaks hits the northern hemisphere, the company’s CEO Qiu Dongxu told the official Xinhua News Agency in a recent interview.

The firm’s partnership with the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science is helping it ride on the coattails of the military’s all-out mobilization – the PLA put itself on a “wartime” footing to develop and trial a vaccine.

Work by well-known virologist Chen Wei, who is also a major general with the PLA’s Institute of Military Medicine, is coming along well with so far the most promising results compared with other experiments and clinical trials conducted by her domestic peers.

Chen has had an injection herself, and published a paper in The Lancet in May about how it produced virus-specific antibodies and T-cells that targeted the virus within 14 days in the first-stage human trials.

It has also been revealed by Chinese news portal The Paper that the certification of one candidate, Ad5-nCoV, from a pool of several microbes demonstrating satisfactory preliminary efficacy against the pneumonic pathogen, will be signed off by Chen’s team for CanSino Bio to produce and the PLA will buy out the initial tranches to make sure its soldiers will receive jabs ahead of others.

The vaccine uses a weakened version of adenovirus type 5 (Ad5), a common cold virus, as a vector to deliver a genetic material from Covid-19 to induce an immune response from the recipients.

Ad5-nCoV, jointly developed by the PLA and CanSino Bio, is one of the most promising vaccine candidates in human trials in China. Photo: Handout

CanSino Bio’s Qiu said the second-stage trial in June involving 508 people had shown significant improvements in vaccine safety and immunity response compared with the first trial, without elaborating further. The Covid-19 treatment triggered an immune system response in more than 100 participants who were from the initial epicenter of Wuhan in the phase-one trial, with no one showing any severe side-effects, according to a previous report by the PLA Daily on the breakthrough made by Chen’s team.

The third trial will also be conducted with researchers from Russia, Brazil, Chile and Saudi Arabia for wider observation of 40,000 volunteers in a bid to include more strains of the world-engulfing virus. Further experimentation is needed to determine how long acquired immunity to Covid-19 can last after a jab.

Duan Kaizeng, director of the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, which is under the umbrella of the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group Corp, told reporters that the third-stage trial must involve patients from Covid-19 outbreak hotspots as China has not had enough of them – sweeping containment measures whittled down the tally of new infections across the country.

CanSino Bio said Ad5-nCoV had currently been limited to military use only and its use would not be expanded to a broader vaccination range without the approval of the PLA’s Logistics Support Department. It did not confirm if the trails were conducted via mandatory innoculation among the troopers.

The rare cooperation between the military and a non-SOE company to find a vaccine is evidence of Beijing’s imperative to first make solders immune to the virus while Beijing steps up its military posturing in the region. There have also been unconfirmed accusations about the PLA forcing its personnel to take part in trials led by CanSino Bio and Chen’s team, with soldiers being called up to receive jabs and then exposed to the virus. The PLA has denied these allegations.

Meanwhile, CanSino Bio’s shares have had a bull run on the Hong Kong bourse amid the ongoing market exuberance, closing at HK$249.2 on Monday, compared with its all-time low of HK$30.55 in 2019.

China’s health authority has thus far approved no fewer than eight shots that are safe enough for human trials to determine their efficacy against Covid-19. It has also been reported last month that the National Health Commission had issued its go-ahead to expand the trials of two other vaccine candidates for employees at state-owned firms to get their jabs before they travel overseas. That report soon fueled speculation that China had already developed vaccines, prompting the commission to issue a denial.