China developing 9 potential vaccines in global race for coronavirus cure

CanSino is recruiting healthy volunteers for a clinical trial of its vaccine candidate.
PHOTO: Weibo

The race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine is on, with the United States already starting a clinical trial and China close behind.

On Tuesday, vaccine producer CanSino Biologics, in Tianjin in China's northeast, said it was looking for volunteers to take part in a six-month clinical trial of a treatment it had developed jointly with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

"The vaccine does not contain infectious substances, is highly safe and stable, and requires only one inoculation," the Hubei Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in its request for volunteers.

Its announcement came a day after the first participant began a phase I trial for an experimental vaccine funded by the US National Institutes of Health and developed by biotech startup Moderna.

It uses messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology that copies the genetic code of the virus instead of the actual virus. To date, no mRNA vaccine has been approved for humans.

China's own mRNA vaccine candidate, jointly developed by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Tongji University and Stermina in Shanghai, is undergoing animal trials and is expected to enter the clinical phrase in mid-April.

Developed by the CanSino and the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, the vaccine is the front-runner of nine that China is developing.

All are in the process of completing preclinical trial studies and will enter clinical trials in April, with some expected to advance faster than others, according to Wang Junzhi, a biological products quality control expert and academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"China's research and development of a vaccine for the coronavirus is, generally speaking, among the most advanced in the world," Wang said at a press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday. "[We] will not be slower than other countries."

Hopes have been pinned on developing a vaccine, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, in the face of an epidemic with no known cure that has brought the world to a partial standstill.

Scientists around the world are conducting experiments, and the US is reported to have tried to buy a Germany vaccine developer so that it would supply to the US only - with the German government reportedly offering its own financial incentives for the biopharmaceutical company concerned, CureVac, to stay in the country.

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"A vaccine is the most effective medical means for epidemic prevention and control as it can effectively stop the spread of the virus," Lei Chaozi, director of science and technology at China's Ministry of Education, said.

"Vaccines also play an important part in… stabilising the economy and enabling the country to return to normal as work and production resume."

President Xi Jinping called for faster development of coronavirus vaccines and treatment drugs when he inspected the Academy of Military Medical Sciences two weeks ago.

About 1,000 Chinese scientists have been working on the push for vaccines, with nine vaccines developed through five different approaches, including an inactivated vaccine, a viral vector-based vaccine and a gene vaccine.

Wang said that the vaccines needed to satisfy strictly the relevant regulations and technical standards - as well as World Health Organisation requirements - before starting clinical trials.

The potential vaccine developed by CanSino and military researchers, led by virologist Chen Wei, is genetically engineered. "Spikes" on the surface of the coronavirus bind to human cells and enable the virus to invade the human cells, causing the sometimes fatal infection known as Covid-19.

In theory, vaccines can rehearse such an attack and trigger the human body to be primed to respond to a real infection.

CanSino has submitted the pre-investigational new drug review application for the Ad5-nCoV vaccine to Chinese regulatory authorities, and is in the process of submitting the related technical documents.

According to the Hubei CDC, volunteers for the trial must be 18 to 60 years old with no history of coronavirus infection.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.