China now has more COVID-19 vaccine candidates approved for human testing than any other country in the world.
On Tuesday, Chinese health authorities approved vaccine candidates developed by two Chinese companies—the state-owned Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Beijing-based biotech firm Sinovac—for phase I testing on humans, according to China’s state-run media outlet Xinhua News. This follows an April 10 announcement that CanSino Biologics, a biotech firm based in Tianjin, China, and its partners at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, were the world’s first vaccine makers to move into phase II trials for vaccine development.
China has thus far moved at record speed in the global hunt for a vaccine, yet the extraordinary pace doesn’t necessarily mean China will develop the world’s first cure, nor does it mean China is shortening the timeline for seeing a vaccine through to market. It’s still working on the 12- to 18- month schedule that experts say is realistic—if not overly optimistic. At least three companies based elsewhere have entered phase I trials; a fourth won phase I and phase II approval at once. Yet the Chinese companies are near the pole position for vaccines against the pandemic, and they may gain more prominence as candidates inch closer to the finish line in coming months. (The three companies did not return Fortune‘s requests for comment.)
This is what we know about them so far:
CanSino Biologics was founded in 2009 by Yu Xuefeng, a Chinese national who spent most of his career in Canada working for the vaccine and pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur. Yu says that he founded the company to connect what he saw as a booming vaccine research and development market in China with international markets and collaborators. In line with this mission, he recruited three other native-Chinese scientists with overseas pharmaceutical experience to launch the company.
CanSino has worked on developing vaccines for a number of different infectious diseases, such as meningitis and tuberculosis. It was thrust into China’s national spotlight in 2017 when domestic authorities approved the company’s vaccine as China’s first candidate for Ebola. The vaccine was developed in partnership with the military-run Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing.
CanSino says its current vaccine efforts are based on the technologies it developed in producing the Ebola vaccine, and Chinese media has heralded the company’s efforts as a demonstration of the country’s “strong research capabilities.“
Yu has signalled openness in cooperating internationally in finding a vaccine, and on Monday signed on to a World Health Organization statement urging more global coordination in COVID-19 vaccine development efforts. At the same time, Dr. Chen Wei, a Chinese general who is leading the military vaccine team partnering with CanSino, has described the quest in militaristic and nationalistic terms, equating finding a vaccine with providing China a ‘bio shield’ from outside threats.
Sinovac Biotech was established in Beijing in 2001 on the heels of work conducted by CEO Yin Weidong and his team to develop China’s first domestically-produced hepatitis A vaccine.
Since then, the company has developed six other commercially-viable vaccines, and the firm now has a market value of over $400 million.
The company gained particular prominence in 2009 when it developed the world’s first approved vaccine to tackle H1N1 swine flu, the only pandemic the world had grappled with since the 1918 Spanish Flu until the coronavirus hit.
Sinovac’s efforts to produce a coronavirus vaccine are based on platforms the company used to address China’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2004, according to a vaccine tracker run by the Milken Institute, a U.S.-based think tank. At the time of SARS, Sinovac created the first vaccine candidate to enter human trials. And though initial trials proved promising, further trials were suspended as the threat of SARS subsided.
For now, the company seems intent to showcase to the world that coronavirus isn’t the first pandemic it’s battled. “Sinovac has always been committed to developing vaccines for global use when facing pandemics,” Yin said in a company statement on Tuesday.
Wuhan Institute of Biological Products
Less is known about the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. Founded in 1950, it traces its roots almost all the way back to the founding of modern-day China. The institute now operates as an affiliate of the state-owned China National Pharmaceutical Group—also known as Sinopharm—which is the largest pharmaceutical company in China with annual revenue topping $60 billion in 2019.
The institute has a sprawling campus in Wuhan with nearly 1,000 employees, according to the company’s website. The company, however, has released little information about its past or ongoing vaccine development efforts.
Located in the city at the center of China’s coronavirus outbreak, the institute has become the subject of unfounded conspiracy theories that suggest the pathogen leaked from its labs. Such theories have largely targeted the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but some have drawn connections between the two institutes, inserting them into the unproven narrative that the Chinese government played a role in creating the virus. The U.S. government is currently investigating the possibility that the virus originated in a lab, but hasn’t yet drawn any conclusions. Scientists say that the virus most likely started in bats and spread to other animals before passing to humans, but its specific origin is not yet known.
The Institute of Biological Products has had to overcome a scandal of a different kind in recent years. In 2018, the Chinese government found that the institute produced over 400,000 defective DPT vaccines—which protect against diphtheria, pertussis, and tuberculosis—and sacked six local government officials in the wake of the crisis.
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