And while the successful development of a vaccine would not preclude other countries from continuing to pursue their own research, China has placed special emphasis on being first.
As of October, four of the 10 Covid-19 vaccine candidates that have entered Phase 3 clinical trials worldwide — the last and most important step of testing before regulatory approval is sought — were developed by Chinese companies.
Two are from China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a unit of state-owned pharmaceutical giant China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm). Another candidate, CoronaVac, was developed by drugmaker Sinovac Biotech, with the remaining one jointly developed by the Chinese military-linked Beijing Institute of Biotechnology and vaccine company CanSino Biologics.
CNBG Chairman Yang Xiaoming said last month that the progress of its vaccines was going “faster than expected.” The company has carried out Phase 3 trials in countries including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Peru, Morocco, and Argentina, with a total of 42,000 participants.
Wu Guizhen, the chief bio-safety expert at China’s Disease Control and Prevention Center, told state broadcaster CCTV last month that the country’s coronavirus vaccines could be ready for general public use as early as November.
“I believe it’s very likely they’ll be the first to announce the successful development of a vaccine,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“But the key question is how well the international society, especially the scientific community, will recognize it.”
“Spirit of sacrifice”
A vaccine usually takes years to develop. But to stop a virus that has killed more than a million people worldwide, scientists are developing Covid-19 vaccines at unprecedented speed. In China, efforts to ramp up that process have included the controversial testing of hundreds of thousands of people outside the normal regulatory approval process.
The vaccine candidates approved for emergency use are still in Phase 3 trials. Some experts worry that fast-tracking the normal approval process could potentially expose participants to unknown side effects, and Chinese drug makers are taking risks that contravene international ethical and safety norms.
“Despite official claims that the vaccines are safe and effective, it may not be a wise decision to inoculate so many people on such a large scale before systematic data from Phase 3 clinical trials become available,” said Huang, the global health expert.
Yet Chinese drug companies were already taking controversial and risky steps months before the launch of the emergency use program.