The research is still too nascent to know if the shot from CanSino, or indeed any company, will provide the magic bullet countries are seeking to open up while the pandemic rages. But CanSino's inroads show China's young biotechnology industry is becoming a global contender, and a powerful tool for President Xi Jinping. When a group of Chinese scientists gathered over barbecue and beer in a Toronto backyard a decade ago, talk drifted to their homeland's vaccines, which had long lagged the developed world on quality and safety. Four of them decided to act.
They left top positions at global pharmaceutical companies in Canada to set up a biotechnology firm half a world away in Tianjin, China, hoping to produce vaccines on par with Western countries. Now, that company, CanSino Biologics Inc., is vaulting into the global spotlight as connections on both sides of the Pacific make it one of the front-runners in the race for a coronavirus vaccine.
CanSino's Chinese-born chief executive officer, Yu Xuefeng, formerly a senior executive at drugmaker Sanofi's Canadian vaccine operations, has maintained relationships in Canada and China even as geopolitical disagreements polarize both countries. Yu has boosted his firm's scientific prowess by tying up with the Canadian government's largest research organization. At home, he's worked with a prominent Chinese military scientist, first on an Ebola vaccine and now on CanSino's experimental coronavirus shot.
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In May, CanSino became the first globally to publish a full scientific study on its early human trials, an important step because it allows researchers worldwide to assess a vaccine's potential.
The company — which is yet to generate revenue and logged a $22 million loss last year — has so far kept up with, and occasionally even outpaced, Western pharmaceutical giants with the speed of its initial coronavirus vaccine trials. The research is still too nascent to know if the shot from CanSino, or indeed any company, will provide the magic bullet countries are seeking to open up while the pandemic rages. But CanSino's inroads show China's young biotechnology industry is becoming a global contender, and a powerful tool for President Xi Jinping.
CanSino "deserves credit for the speed with which they pushed the vaccine through pre-clinical studies and human testing," said Wang Ruizhe, a pharmaceutical industry analyst at Capital Securities Corp. in Shanghai. "It tells you something about their ability to mobilize and leverage the resources that it takes to get all these done. The resources required here are substantial."
A spokesperson for the Chinese company, citing media reports in May, said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is supportive of the Canadian researchers working on clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine with CanSino.
China's pharmaceutical industry has been dogged by safety incidents and quality scandals. But in recent years, parts of it have grown more advanced as hundreds of Chinese scientists trained in the West have come home.
Called hai gui, or "sea turtles," these returnees have capitalized on relationships and expertise gained in countries like the US and Canada, and created new companies. CanSino's CEO Yu — 57, who has a doctorate from Canada's McGill University in microbiology and was the head of vaccine development and production at Sanofi Pasteur in Canada — belongs to this new breed of executives.
In the prospectus for CanSino's 2019 public offering in Hong Kong, Yu described the difficult choices he and his colleagues made in forging their new path back home in China.
"Most of our families stayed in Canada, and we could only see them a few times a year," he wrote. "When you think about your young kids and teenagers growing up without dads, when you know your wife had to shovel out of 10 inches of deep snow early morning in -20°C wind chill all by herself – those were the tough moments."
The name CanSino represents the Chinese characters for health, hope and promises, while in English it's a combination of Canada and China. Besides Yu, other top officials at the firm have Canadian connections. Chief Scientific Officer Zhu Tao was also a senior scientist at Sanofi Pasteur in Canada. The company's success has relied on threading the needle between both nations.
In February 2014, about five years after returning to China, Yu licensed a technology from the National Research Council of Canada called HEK 293 cell lines, which is required to produce large quantities of a vaccine reliably. That science went on to partly underpin CanSino's viral vector technology.
An advanced way to make a vaccine, a viral vector is a genetically modified virus that is no longer harmful to humans, but can serve as a vehicle to carry the genes of another germ to prepare the immune system for attack. Few Chinese companies had that technology in 2014, when a Chinese army researcher called Chen Wei began looking for viral vector expertise to produce a vaccine amid Africa's Ebola outbreak.
A major general in China's People's Liberation Army, Chen headed the Institute of Biotechnology at the country's Academy of Military Medical Sciences. She went on to work with CanSino to develop an Ebola vaccine that in 2017 was approved in China for emergency use and national stockpiling.
Chen has star status in China. In a nationalistic movie called Wolf Warrior II, the character of a scientist who develops a vaccine against a deadly African virus is believed to be modeled on her. She developed a therapy used by Chinese health workers during the SARS outbreak of 2003.
Chen is also known for a singular dedication to her work. In a 2004 interview with state-run CCTV, she said she presented her findings on the SARS therapy to Beijing's municipal authorities after dosing her four-year-old son with it for two months because she was so sure about her research.