Early ac­cess to vac­cine tri­als may be held up by China spat: ex­perts

‘We have not been able to ob­tain any pro­jected time lines’

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - TOM BLACK­WELL

Canada’s first big push for a COVID-19 vac­cine may be fall­ing vic­tim to sour re­la­tions with Bei­jing, as Chi­nese of­fi­cials con­tinue to hold up a ship­ment of the drug needed to carry out promised hu­man tri­als here.

CanSino Bi­o­log­ics of Tian­jin, China signed an ac­cord with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in May to have its vac­cine tested in Canada, a heav­ily pro­moted deal the gov­ern­ment said could give Cana­di­ans early ac­cess to the serum.

But more two-and-a-half months later, the Cana­dian tri­als have yet to start, be­cause sci­en­tists have noth­ing to study.

Sam­ples of the vac­cine can­di­date — al­ready one of the world’s most ad­vanced in terms of the trial process — have not been ap­proved for ship­ment to Canada by Chi­nese cus­toms, one of the re­searchers con­firmed Tues­day.

David Mul­roney, Canada’s am­bas­sador to China from 2009 to 2012, said it’s hard to know why the de­liv­ery has been stalled, but he has his sus­pi­cions.

“It’s likely that the ship­ment is be­ing de­layed as part of China’s re­tal­i­a­tion against Canada over the Meng (Wanzhou) ar­rest,” he said, re­fer­ring to the Huawei Tech­nolo­gies CFO held in Van­cou­ver on a U.S. ex­tra­di­tion re­quest.

“But it could also be due to the kind of sud­den, un­ex­plained de­lay that rou­tinely hap­pens when you’re deal­ing with China’s opaque and of­ten un­co­op­er­a­tive cus­toms au­thor­i­ties,” Mul­roney added. “Ei­ther way, it raises the ques­tion of why the NRC thought it was a good idea to work with a Chi­nese part­ner on such a sen­si­tive project.”

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced the agree­ment be­tween CanSino — a com­pany with ex­ten­sive Cana­dian ties — and the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil (NRC) in mid-May, call­ing it “en­cour­ag­ing news.”

Un­der the ac­cord, the Cana­dian Centre for Vac­ci­nol­ogy at Dal­housie Univer­sity would hold a small Phase 1 safety trial, and pos­si­bly also Phase 2 and 3 tri­als. If ap­proved by reg­u­la­tors, it could then be man­u­fac­tured at an NRC fa­cil­ity in Montreal, mak­ing Cana­di­ans “among the first in the world to have ac­cess to a safe and ef­fec­tive vac­cine against COVID-19,” the coun­cil has said.

Mean­while, CanSino has con­ducted its own Phase 1 and 2 tri­als in China, and was the first de­vel­oper to pub­lish study re­sults in a peer-re­viewed jour­nal. They in­di­cate the vac­cine is gen­er­ally safe and prompts an im­mune re­sponse in most re­cip­i­ents.

Last month, the com­pany’s co­founder said it was in talks with Rus­sia, Brazil, Chile and Saudi Ara­bia to con­duct Phase 3 tri­als, which de­ter­mine whether the vac­cine ac­tu­ally pro­tects peo­ple against COVID-19 in­fec­tion.

Back in Canada, “we are con­tin­u­ing to wait for the vac­cine,” said Scott Halperin, the Dal­housie sci­en­tist head­ing Canada’s planned Phase-1 trial.

“All we know is that its await­ing cus­toms clear­ance by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment for ex­port,” he said. “We have not been able to ob­tain any pro­jected time­lines. Noth­ing much else I can say, other than we can start the trial as soon as we re­ceive the vac­cine.”

Asked if po­lit­i­cal is­sues might be in­volved, he said that was “an ex­cel­lent ques­tion to pose to Global Af­fairs Canada.”

Spokes­men for For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter François-Philippe Cham­pagne and the NRC were un­able to com­ment by dead­line.

Guy Saint-Jac­ques, another for­mer Cana­dian am­bas­sador to China, said Tues­day he does not know what’s be­hind the de­lay. But he said it “could well be part of the Chi­nese ar­se­nal” in the dis­pute over Meng’s ar­rest.

In an ap­par­ent re­sponse to the ex­ec­u­tive’s de­ten­tion, Bei­jing has al­ready im­pris­oned Michael Kovrig, a Cana­dian ex-diplo­mat, and Michael Spa­vor, a Cana­dian busi­ness­man, un­der vague es­pi­onage charges; in­creased another Cana­dian’s drug-deal­ing sen­tence from jail to death; and blocked some agri­cul­tural im­ports from Canada.

“It might also be that China would pre­fer to en­sure that any vac­cine is de­vel­oped in China first and not shared with a for­eign coun­try, es­pe­cially Canada,” Saint-Jac­ques added.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has said it is also look­ing at pre-or­der­ing other vac­cines that are ad­vanced in their test­ing but, un­like the U.S. and sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries, has yet to do so.

The CanSino vac­cine can­di­date — called Ad5-nCoV — uses a dif­fer­ent, harm­less virus as a de­liv­ery sys­tem. The “ade­n­ovirus” is mod­i­fied to ex­press part of the SARS-CoV-2 germ that causes COVID, which then should trig­ger the im­mune sys­tem to fend off the coro­n­avirus.

Early stud­ies have not been a to­tal success, with damp­ened im­mune re­sponse in some peo­ple, likely be­cause they’ve been ex­posed to the vac­cine’s ade­n­ovirus back­bone be­fore and have an­ti­bod­ies that re­pel it.

For that rea­son, some ex­perts have ques­tioned Canada’s in­vest­ment in the prod­uct. Oth­ers say none of the leading vac­cine can­di­dates are likely to be perfectly ef­fec­tive, and any vac­cine is bet­ter than none.



A man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity of vac­cine maker CanSino Bi­o­log­ics in Tian­jin, China, in 2018.


A tech­ni­cian works at a fa­cil­ity of Chi­nese vac­cine maker CanSino Bi­o­log­ics in Tian­jin. David Mul­roney, Canada’s am­bas­sador to China from 2009-12, be­lieves China is slow-walk­ing a vac­cine de­liv­ery to Canada over po­lit­i­cal ten­sions.

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