This photo taken on February 27, 2021, shows a trolley carrying Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines being transported to a warehouse after being unloaded from a Cathay Pacific cargo plane at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Jerome Favre

Beijing may be about to approve the use of the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine from BioNTech “very soon,” the German drugmaker’s distributor for the Greater China Region has revealed. 

Shanghai Fosun Pharma has teased its shareholders and foreigners in China that the mRNA vaccine could be on course for a roll-out in a month or two.  

The company is one of BioNTech’s funding and research partners and is said to have played a role in hashing out the formula and production parameters of the cutting-edge vaccine against the coronavirus.

Fosun Pharma president and CEO Wu Yifang told a shareholders’ meeting in Shanghai on Wednesday that he would expect a quick turnaround from Chinese watchdogs after the National Medical Products Administration in Beijing gave its all-clear in a regulatory review by experts.

Wu said “residual approval and accreditation” had been fast-tracked for China’s health authority to authorize the jabs widely administered across the West.   

“Of course more time is needed for officials to sign off on documents but what I can assure you is that we have very smooth communication with state regulators and they have also been expediting steps and procedures and do not want to waste even a day [in their approval of the vaccine],” said Wu, according to the minutes of the meeting viewed by Asia Times. 

Wu also revealed that Fosun had consulted BioNTech in advance on preparations to ramp up production to make swift shipments, with bottling in Germany scheduled in August so deliveries to China could be made on the double once Beijing gives the go-ahead. 

Fosun Pharma says Chinese authorities don’t want to waste time during the approvals process. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

China’s Caixin magazine also cited Fosun as saying that the first 400 million vials would be primed for China as soon as next month.

It is said condensed ingredients and concentrate for solution infusion equaling another billion doses could also be shipped to China for bottling and packaging at Fosun’s plants in Shanghai and across the country. Monthly output can be easily ratcheted up to 100-200 million doses, according to Caixin. 

The BioNTech mRNA vaccine uses a copy of a molecule called messenger RNA to trigger an adaptive immune response, by transfecting synthetic RNA into immunity cells to build the foreign protein that would normally be produced by a pathogen and thus teaches the body to identify and destroy the corresponding pathogen.

It is also suggested that Fosun may supply the mRNA drug primarily to the Chinese government for free inoculations as “booster shots.”

The Chinese firm may also aim to sign up more sub-distributors and resellers to recoup its investment in BioNTech, which led to a cooperation and exclusive shipment deal in early 2020 that predated Pfizer’s partnership with the German manufacturer. 

Fosun is expected to use Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, fitted with state-of-the-art cold chain storage facilities, as a logistic hub to take deliveries, with Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines tipped to fly cargo planes to haul vials straight from Germany. 

The BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine Photo: biontech.de

Fosun Pharma is a subsidiary of the eponymous group based in Shanghai and founded by billionaire Guo Guangchang as one of China’s largest private conglomerates. Fosun has been shipping the same vaccine from Germany to Hong Kong and Macau since the first quarter and has recently inked deals with TSMC and a charitable foundation under Foxconn for deliveries to Taiwan. 

More details about the impending shipments to China and localized bottling and packaging are unknown as Fosun did not respond to e-mailed inquires. 

Still, Chinese state media and senior health officials have in recent months cued up the advent of the vaccine in the country.

Despite its continued publicity of Chinese drugs, the People’s Daily ran an op-ed last month that hailed the mRNA’s “unrivaled forte” in crushing the virus. The mRNA vaccine’s potency could be noticeably stronger than drugs using traditional methods against new strains. 

At a symposium in April, Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, also candidly conceded that Chinese jabs such as those from Sinovac may get the short end of the stick when asked how they would stack up against Western ones, including BioNTech’s mRNA shot.

Gao also revealed that China had started preliminary trials of its indigenous mRNA candidates with promising results, since the new technology would be the future of vaccine development and China could not afford to be a laggard.

A girl gets her first dose of vaccine at a community center in Guangzhou. Most of the vaccines being administered across China are supplied by Sinovac and SinoPharm. Photo: Handout

The talk of Fosun supplying the mRNA drug in China as booster shots has raised questions about efficacy and safety. 

Dr Zhang Hongtao, a researcher with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, said mixing Chinese vaccines, mostly of the attenuated type from Sinovac and SinoPharm as seen in nationwide immunization, with an entirely different kind of mRNA formula may boost the overall protection from Covid-19, especially its more transmissible Delta strain. 

The scholar said more effective vaccines are sorely needed in China given the mediocre performance of existing drugs and that he believed the risks from injecting two different vaccines would still be manageable and would outweigh the heightened threats from more contagious strains. 

The University of Hong Kong is also conducting a study into the possible “conflation of protection” produced by the combination of Chinese and Western vaccines as well as any additional risks. Hong Kong is among the few jurisdictions that have rolled out shots from Sinovac and BioNTech for people to choose from since February. 

Foreign expats living in China still hope to be the first recipients of the drug from Germany.

In March, the American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai lobbied the city’s officials to import Western vaccines to inoculate the city’s sizable American and European diaspora, mostly businessmen and diplomats, for them to travel freely internationally. 

The chamber reportedly told Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng in a letter that securing vaccines that are internationally recognized to protect foreign executives based in Shanghai would be instrumental for the city to retain talent and open up in the post-Covid world, even though any easing of travel restrictions may not happen soon. The chamber also contacted Fosun to discuss priority shipments. 

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