At present, there are eight COVID-19 vaccines nearing the end of final trials, and four of these are from China. China’s two leading candidates have been produced by the military and a state-owned enterprise, respectively. On September 11, Nature took a look at the prominent role of China’s military in medical research during the COVID-19 era. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is, soldier for soldier, the largest military force in the world. Founded in 1927 to fight the Nationalist government, the PLA had a long history of being an economic player after communist China was established in 1949. Until about 2000, they had holdings in real estate, agriculture, and manufacturing, which were originally meant to maintain self-sufficiency as an institution. By the end of the 20th Century, a combination of the Communist Party wanting increased control and, perhaps, the desire for a more “mainstream” economy, led to a near complete separation of the PLA from its purely civilian interests. But it has maintained a variety of science and technology development agencies, similar to our DOD’s DARPA. Since about 2015, it has increased the recruitment of scientists and investment in the medical research field. And now the COVID-19 pandemic, “is showcasing the PLA’s growing expertise in medical research, including a major role in developing the coronavirus vaccine that was the first in the world to be approved for restricted use.” This is all in line with the Chinese focus on critical industries, including life sciences.
Research Led by Major General Chen Wei
Researcher Major General Chen Wei of the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, which is part of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, led the team that created the restricted-use vaccine, which included government agencies, universities, and the Tianjin pharma firm CanSino Biologics. This July, they were “one of the first” to publish peer-reviewed results showing a COVID-19 vaccine to be both safe and capable of creating an immune response. By that point, China had already approved Ad5-nCoV, as the common cold adenovirus-based vaccine was named, for limited use for military personnel. Wei and her team were among the thousands of military members who took the vaccine. China analyst Adam Ni of Australian National University in Canberra, who focuses on the PLA, says that approval for widespread use would be, “a pretty big propaganda victory” for China. CanSino Biologics has faced challenges, including having its own government block shipment of its investigational product to Canada. Since then, Canada has gone to Plans B and even a Plan C as reported by TrialSite.
Science and Innovation Key to PLA Restructuring
Back in 2015, President Xi Jinping made science and innovation key elements to modernizing the military, according to Elsa Kania, Chinese military expert at the Center for a New American Security. Also, the PLA developed electronic, cyber, and space-warfare agencies, “alongside its more conventional army, navy and air force.” In 2016, the Science and Technology Commission became one of many new military “sections”; this Commission has a big say in which research is funded. Since 2018, the PLA has begun to focus on recruiting civilian-trained scientists. The Academy of Military Sciences, “now relies more on civilians than military cadres to fulfil its scientific research needs,” writes one expert. A policy called military-civil fusion, also announced in 2015, allows closer ties between the PLA and civilian universities. Also, since the start of the pandemic, “partnerships between the PLA and the medical-science companies have accelerated.” In addition to working with CanSino Biologics to create Ad5-nCoV, the PLA has teamed up with Beijing Chieftain, maker of disinfecting and medical equipment.
China more than likely sees the PLA vaccine as a geopolitical win, offering the ability to influence favored nations given early access. CanSino Biologics now has contracts to do Phase 3 trials in Russia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Again government agencies there shunned a legitimate contract that CanSino Biologics formed with Canada.
Not Well Understood
China analysts have not spent much time on PLA medical research, so its full import is unknown. And some experts have concern about PLA activities. This July, the Justice Department charged two Chinese nationals with spying on US entities, including Moderna. “Tech transfer is clearly a policy and priority of the Chinese government at the highest levels and has involved fairly egregious instances of hacking, for purposes of data theft,” says one expert. Finally, some scientists share concern about the lack of ethical safeguards; for example, do military personnel get a “choice” when it comes to taking this experimental medical intervention? TrialSite has addressed some of the differences in vaccine development between a tendency in the “East” for “Expediency” and in the West “Safety.”
State-Owned SinoPharm in Phase 3 Trials, Some Insiders Nervous
On September 14, Asia Times reported on one of the candidates developed by SinoPharm, an old-fashioned, attenuated SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. They note that in March, about 180 of SinoPharm’s scientists and their families took the vaccine, “as the state-owned drug maker scrambled to develop a Covid-19 vaccine but needed to ascertain its safety and efficacy.” Six months later these subjects are still showing “significantly high levels” of COVID-19 antibodies. Dr. Zhang Wenhong, the chief of Infectious Diseases at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, also is on an elite panel of experts advising China’s leadership during the pandemic. His hospital division is jointly managed by SinoPharm and the well-respected Fudan University. “They kept on taking blood for antibody testing almost on a daily basis since then and found no major changes in their immunity acquired through the vaccination,” recalled Zhang. Sunday SinoPharm noted it was making “promising progress” and that all of the subjects between 18 and 59 showed antibodies present within 28 days of taking two doses. No major side effects have been noted during the ongoing Phase 3 trials.
Vaccine Research in China: ‘Opaqueness’
However, an anonymous virologist who works with Zhang at Shanghai’s Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Asia Times that he along with other experts at the center have become “anti-vaxxers” based on the opaqueness of research and trials in China. “When Oxford and AstraZeneca made public their setback in human trials after at least one patient developed unexplained neurological symptoms that turned out to be undiagnosed multiple sclerosis, all we hear from Chinese state media is propaganda about how quickly we can get not just one, but several vaccines, with almost no information about how safe they are and the side effects found during human trials,” said the anonymous virologist, who was not approved to talk to foreign media. “Russia reportedly skipped third-stage human trials before announcing the launch of its vaccine in August and judging from the information I gleaned from vaccine researchers in China, Beijing has also been tacitly pressuring them to fast-track trials.”
Of course, TrialSite has the point of view that the Russian “registration” of Sputnik V was just as much marketing as it as material. After all, the Russians too are trying to develop a more robust life sciences sector.
Although, across the board, from the United States and the United Kingdom and Germany in the “West” to China and Russia in the “East,” clearly nations and communities seek an expedited vaccine to transition and transcend societies out of this devastating pandemic. TrialSite monitors and chronicles research around the world and a clear them has emerged across both East and West that accelerated timelines are the norm now. However, so called “Vaccine nationalism” appears more pronounced in the East whereas in the West big-stakes economics drives competition toward victory. The East appears more willing to deviate from standard ethical and good clinical practices (e.g. wholesale testing on humans prior to approval and outside of trials) while in the West although there are concerns about the influence of politics and transparency as to who receives federal dollars there is more emphasis on safety and following standard practices. That’s not to say that Sputnik V nor any of the vaccines developed in China aren’t equal to or even better than the Western ones. TrialSite is not in a position to make such a declaration. TrialSite does disclose that it has a Western, pro-free market economy and democracy bias, which influences, even biases, the team’s world view.