In a medical centre in the eastern city of Xuzhou, a few dozen healthy adults have become some of the first to trial a vaccine candidate for the coronavirus.
- Five of the eight human trials to find a COVID-19 vaccine are in China
- Sinovac Biotech is trying to prevent the virus’ ability to reproduce
- Beijing is keen for a successful Chinese vaccine to help restore its global reputation
They are among a small group of people in China, the US and Britain who are pioneering the first human trials of different potential vaccines for COVID-19.
According to the Chinese company behind the Xuzhou vaccine, Sinovac Biotech, they are working around the clock.
“Normally the development of a vaccine will take eight to 10 years,” senior director of overseas business for Sinovac Meng Weining told the ABC.
“For this vaccine, it’s really a pandemic, so we’re trying our best to make it as quick as possible for each step.”
Sinovac — a private company supported by China’s government — previously worked on a SARS vaccine that was abandoned when the deadly virus disappeared in 2003, and in more recent years has developed avian flu and hepatitis vaccines.
This time, Sinovac is using a conventional method for its potential vaccine, inactivating the virus’ ability to reproduce.
It’s now one of five Chinese companies or government research organisations approved to commence human trials as regulators fast-track the process.
“That doesn’t mean we will cut down on certain steps for the development,” Mr Meng said.
“Normally you first do a test and then, according to the result, you do a second test. But, in order to save time, we do all testing in parallel.”
The Chinese virologist who tested herself with a vaccine
Another Chinese company, CanSino Biological Institute, is trying a slightly different approach for its vaccine candidate, which it’s working on with a Chinese military research institute.
Prominent military virologist Chen Wei was photographed getting a dose while standing in front of the Communist Party flag — a nod to the warlike-urgency that fuels the race for the vaccine.
“The virus is ruthless, but we believe in miracles,” Dr Chen told local media.
In another Chinese media interview, she said people taking part in the trials are showing their “belief in the technology of our motherland”.
CanSino is already on to phase two trials. However, according to the company, the second stage is based on “preliminary” results — that haven’t been shared — and the first stage of observations had an end point of just seven days.
Usually, phrase one trials take months, if not years.
“One year to 18 months is a very short period of time, and some people are even saying that by end of this year we could use these vaccines for emergency needs,” former medical officer with the World Health Organisation Du Yuping said.
“But I think if these phase one safety tests and phase two immunity effectiveness trials are okay, then we can use them at least for the high-risk population like the medical workers.”
China’s troubled history with vaccines
There are more than 100 COVID-19 vaccine efforts around the world but so far, only eight have moved to clinical trial stage.
And five of them involve Chinese companies or government research institutes.
But the early head start belies a troubled history for vaccine makers in China.
Two years ago, a major scandal erupted when more than 200,000 children were given a faulty diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine.
The same manufacturer, Changchun Changsheng biotech, was also punished for falsifying production and inspection records for a rabies vaccine.
One of the research institutes now involved in the COVID-19 clinical trials, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, was punished for production misconduct for a DPT vaccine in 2016.
As a result, children in two provinces had to be reinoculated.
But one emerging problem Chinese scientists are facing is a dwindling population of people with current infections for future phase three trials.
At this point, potential vaccines are tested on large groups to assess immunity in the general community.
And while a sustained drop-off for new infections is cited by China’s Government as a tremendous achievement, it makes vaccine development harder.
“Having the trials overseas is one option, but we can also do some simulations that can be performed without doing real trials, and those won’t be limited by the number of people still infected,” assistant professor of chemistry at New York University’s Shanghai campus Sun Xiang said.
He’s cautious about predictions of a speedy solution.
“It’s very hard to predict,” he said.
“We now have cutting-edge technology, but luck is also an important aspect.”
Chinese vaccine makers are looking to work with partners overseas for phase three trials, but some experts warn of a tricky road ahead.
“It will be hard to measure the efficacy rate of whether a vaccine works or not because whenever a country begins to have new cases of coronavirus, governments enforce social distancing measures,” Du Yuping said.
“So it will be hard to tell whether the vaccine is working well or if it’s other measures that are contributing to the overall population protection rate”.
A vaccine might also provide redemption
While there’s no guarantee any vaccine will successfully be developed, it would be hugely important to China’s Government if a domestic company prevails.
The Government has taken a huge reputational hit from its early blunders covering up the severity of the virus.
Its strict measures have worked to contain it domestically, but multiple countries are backing Australia’s calls for inquiries and some politicians in the US are even pushing for compensation.
And while like in the US, some Chinese scientists have publicly made optimistic predictions of a one or two-year timeline, those working on the vaccines are more cautious.
“I don’t know how quickly we can go but compared to the normal process, we are faster,” Mr Meng said.
“I think we’re trying our best.”