Canada Continues to Wait for its Negotiated COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate: Still ‘Stuck’ in Chinese Customs

Canada Continues to Wait for its Negotiated COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate Still ‘Stuck’ in Chinese Customs

Although TrialSite has already reported that the Canadian government has gone to a “Plan B” for COVID-19 vaccines, the issue of the delayed CanSino Biologics (CanSinoBIO) vaccine known as Ad5-nCoV nonetheless represents material unfinished business as it’s been more than three months since Health Canada offered the greenlight to proceed with Phase 1 clinical trials at Dalhousie University’s Canadian Center for Vaccinology. CanSinoBIO was conceived in Canada and, as it turns out, even the cell lines used for the vaccine were developed at Canada’s National Research Council of Canada (NRC). But in a time of pandemic, Canada and the company, based in Tianjin, China, entered into a formal deal and still no vaccine candidate shipment. While Canada waits, China’s CanSinoBIO accelerates full throttle, announcing deal after deal now for Phase 3 clinical trials in other nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Mexico and most recently Russia. The Chinese government recently approved Ad5-nCoV for use in the People’s Liberation Army (despite no Phase 3 trial data); and the government there granted CanSinoBIO a patent, the first for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate in that country.   

The Endless Stage Gate

Redmond Shannon, writing for Global News, reported to the world that the news agency emailed the NRC (part of the Canadian government) for a status update and the response was the same as before: the vaccine candidate is stuck in customs in China. As if all was somewhat normal and on track, the government agency also communicated once the Canadian Center for Vaccinology actually received the vaccine candidate, the Phase 1 study would commence. Perhaps some paperwork on a bureaucrat’s desk but the likelihood remains that such blatant disregard for such a critical deal implicates more severe times to come.

Canada Looks East Rather than to its Big Ally to the South

TrialSite reported on the Canada and CanSinoBIO deal back in May. TrialSite analysts wondered why Canada wasn’t working more closely with its traditionally close neighbor to the south. With Operation Warp Speed recently announced, it made sense for the traditional allies to collaborate yet perhaps there was sufficient tensions between the leaders of these two countries? Maybe a big part of the rationale for the deal with the Chinese firm was that CanSinoBIO was conceived in Canada, as the founders were Chinese nationals working in Canada when they thought up the idea. As Global News reported, the cell lines come out of Canada, and it turns out CanSinoBIO and Canada’s NRC collaborated in the past, developing a successful Ebola vaccine approved in 2017. There was a precedent set for further collaboration.

No Transparency

That this vaccine candidate hasn’t been shipped is an embarrassment and definitely shines a spotlight on the growing tensions between China and North America. But just as disturbing is the Canadian government’s lack of transparency, a trend that is of course occurring “south of the border” as well when it comes to far larger sums of public capital distributed to private parties with little details to the public. Global News requested information from the NRC about the nature of the Canadian government and CanSinoBIO deal terms, such as amounts of money committed, etc.  These are rational questions, especially given the situation. The government response: “For reasons of commercial confidentiality, the terms of the agreement between the NRC and CanSino cannot be shared. The overall aim of the NRC’s collaboration with CanSino is to enable production of the candidate vaccine in Montreal, for the purposes of later stage clinical trials, as well as for emergency pandemic use should the vaccine be approved by Health Canada,” communicated Nic Defalco, Media Relations Officer with NRC by email. Of course, as would be expected, CanSinoBIO didn’t respond to a Global News request for more information.

Professor Matthew Herder directs the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University and shared with Global News that the government should definitely be more forthcoming about its deal making.

Political Tensions Lead to the Absurd

Mr. Shannon reminds the world of the political tensions ongoing when Canadian government officials entered into the deal with the Chinese biotech; again, Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou based on U.S. extradition orders while Canadians were being held in China. Global News’ Shannon interviewed a University of Ottawa law and medicine professor, Amir Attaran, who conveyed, “Of all the vaccine candidates that are out there…which one did Canada choose to partner with? One that is owned by a company closely allied to China’s military, at a moment when Canada’s relationship with China is the worst it’s ever been.” Attaran reminded the Global News readers that his country should have selected a better vaccine anyway: for example, Ad5-nCoV is similar to the Oxford (AstraZeneca) vaccine, which he expressed as superior. Professor Attaran concluded that as a consequence, China blocks the Canadian’s product making the whole situation “Farcical.”

Plan B’s

TrialSite has already reported on Canada’s move to multiple Plan B, which includes Project Lightspeed (Pfizer & BioNTech) and Moderna. Global News introduces that Canada’s federal government has spent about $600 million to support COVID-19 therapies and vaccine development but again won’t share any details about the CanSinoBIO deal.

Some emerging information about Canadian government investment into COVID-19 vaccines include:

·         $56 million investment to support VBI Vaccines (based in MA, USA with Ottawa operation)

·         $23 million into the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization—international Vaccine Center

Global News queried the government about any negotiations with AstraZeneca and their increasingly desired AZD1222.  The response: given the steep global competition, and in order to protect Canada’s negotiating position, it would be imprudent to provide details regarding specific suppliers with whom we are currently negotiating…We owe it to Canadians to explore every option for vaccines, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.”

Conclusion

The Canadian government entered into an incredibly strategic arrangement with a small biotech that is partially owned by an organization owned by the Chinese defense agency. Although Canada had precedent for working with CanSinoBIO (a previously successful vaccine for Ebola), the lack of transparency and unwillingness even until today to share more, coupled with the ongoing delay, just makes at least the agencies involved look like they’re not necessarily thinking of Canadians first. Governments in democratic societies are there to serve the people, not the other way around.

Call to Action: Follow the link to read Redmond Shannon’s article at Global News to learn more about this whole situation.